The global centre of gravity shifts east

Beijing wants to give the impression of a "harmonious society", yet the gap between rich and poor is

China has seen nothing like it since the Tang dynasty. That was the last time the country enjoyed rising prosperity, was courted by thousands of foreign envoys, and extended its global power. The 2008 Olympic Games are often described as China's "coming-out party", but to many it's more of a comeback, albeit one that has taken nearly 1,300 years.

Tang poetry and painting are still admired and studied, but the emblems of China's modern renaissance are architectural. The new Olympic Stadium is a "bird's nest" of titanium and glass. The nearly finished China Central Television building comprises two towers leaning into each other and joined near the top like a huge Aids ribbon, while the National Theatre - which opened in September - is a giant, golden egg laid next to Tiananmen Square. Only modern China would allow such a proliferation of experimental styles.

Under the greatest of the dynasty's emperors, Tang Xuanzong, China enjoyed 40 years of prosperity. This year, it celebrates three decades of "Reform and Opening Up", the policy that Deng Xiaoping introduced after Mao Zedong died. To say it has worked is an understatement: last year China contributed more to global growth than the US, the first time any country has done so since the 1930s. No longer is this simply a manufacturing economy - China is buying shares in big international companies, such as the Blackstone venture capital group and Morgan Stanley.

Such is China's determination to showcase its success, and so plentiful is its cash, that the budget for the Olympics is expected to reach $40bn - twice what London plans to spend in 2012. Yet its modern economy coexists with ancient beliefs: the year was chosen in part because of the auspicious date. The word ba means "eight", and its homophone (similar sound, different character) means "to prosper". The Communist Party takes its superstition seriously, so the Games will start at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year.

But numerology cannot mitigate all of China's problems. Beijing wants to give the impression of a "harmonious society", yet the gap between rich and poor is growing. With food-price inflation nudging 20 per cent, some fear protests. The heavy, grey pollution that squats like a toad over the capital has caused the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, to talk of delaying the marathon.

The government's confidence seems brittle. The dissident writer Hu Jia was arrested for "subverting state authority" in late December. Hu Jia sees the problems of the poor, those affected by environmental problems and people with Aids as indivisible, and this government cannot abide anyone who joins the dots. A new decree banning all but state-owned video-sharing sites will hit those showing any anti-government footage.

No protests will be tolerated during the Games themselves. The authorities are investing millions in security cameras, ostensibly to prevent crime but also, presumably, to spot any demonstrations against official policy.

China should be able to conduct diplomacy from a position of strength, but it continues to spit and scratch like a cornered cat. Its hold on Tibet is unassailable, but relations with Germany deteriora ted after the chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama in September. A recent article in the China Daily ludicrously suggested that Tibet's spiritual leader was responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Underground. Rhetoric against Taiwan is growing shrill, too, as the government in Taipei prepares for a March referendum on independence. In effect, Taiwan is a separate country, but Beijing insists that it is still a province. Only 24 small states rec ognise Taiwan, but China refuses to rest until the whole world accepts that it has sovereignty.

Historical analogies have their limits. Unlike Emperor Tang Xuanzong, President Hu Jintao will probably not lose power because of an obsession with a concubine. In 747, the emperor abolished the death penalty; today, China trumpets a decision to replace the firing squad with lethal injection. The global centre of gravity may shift east in 2008, but China's new Golden Age is not yet upon us.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News