Beijing’s preparation for the Olympics is a double-sided story: China has made great economic strides over the past two decades, allowing unprecedented individual freedom to participate and compete in relatively free markets; but China’s leadership shows no inclination to tolerate similar individual freedom and participation in politics.
China’s leaders largely view the Olympics as a sort of international debut at which to showcase China’s progress, wealth, and power. As such, the national attitude toward the Games is very positive–the average Chinese citizen knows very well how much healthier, wealthier, and happier he is today than he was 25 years ago, and he is proud to display this fact. Beijing is doing all it can to encourage these sentiments and to harness them to project an international image of a thriving, happy China—holding celebrations in Tiananmen Square, plastering street corners with giant flashy billboards, opening commemorative museum exhibits, and pouring money into infrastructural and Olympics-related building projects.
While China’s economic and material progress cannot be disputed, however, its ideological progress is a bit murkier. In the quarter century since Mao died, the nature of the regime in Beijing has changed dramatically—it has gone from a dictatorship under the control of a man whose rigid brand of Communism and shrewd self-preservation instinct were literally strangling the country (the largest mass starvation in history occurred after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign), to a single-party dictatorship under the control of a handful of men who—though nominally Communist—are clever enough to adopt market-oriented economic policies which allow the country to grow. China’s current leaders are still just as intent upon hanging onto power as Mao was, however.
Internationally, this means projecting the kind of strong and wealthy image that the Olympics give them a perfect opportunity to do. Domestically, this means keeping most of their citizens happy enough that they will not complain about political restrictions designed to prevent any meaningful opposition from ever arising. Right now they are doing a very good job of this, which is why you will not hear most citizens say anything negative about their country or their government.
The few students, journalists, and businessmen who disagree with the government’s methods and have dared to speak out, however, would tell the story of a very different China—one where the CCP political machine’s desire to suppress any form of dissent, combined with heavy-handed “protective” national policies lacking in respect for human dignity and individual liberty, cast an intangible pall on a country with an otherwise bright future.
Beijing has labeled the Falun Gong spiritual movement and the China Democracy Party—two of the largest organized opposition groups in China—as “subversive” groups, and openly targets practitioners and members for harassment, committing them to hundreds of prisons, labor camps, and mental institutions across the country. Conservative estimates of the number of Falun Gong adherents imprisoned and tortured in these camps range anywhere from several hundred thousand to more than one million.
Organized religion is viewed as an inherent threat to state power and therefore tightly controlled by the state, if not outright suppressed. The small but growing number of Chinese Christians is forced either to attend whitewashed, CCP-sanctioned services, or accept the danger associated with seeking out independent underground churches. Thousands of exiled Tibetan Buddhists gathered in Dehli on August 8 to protest Beijing’s nearly five-decade occupation of Tibet. The aging Dalai Lama has recently offered to accept Chinese sovereignty in return for genuine autonomy, but the CCP remains unmoved. Beijing instead passed a law banning unregistered reincarnation of Tibetan “living Buddhas”, effectively tying the hands of the still-unborn next Dalai Lama, and making clear their intention to avoid any real reconciliation.
The list of human rights abuses continues. Forced abortions are conducted in rural communities in accordance with the one-child policy. Independent-minded newspapers are penalized and then quietly taken over by government authorities. China’s banking system has yet to gain real autonomy, as CCP officials still regularly force banks to bail out large and failing state-owned-enterprises.
Meanwhile, Beijing has exhibited a growing talent for cultivating foreign admirers. The country has recently struck economic agreements in Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and Peru, just as commercial exchange and investment in Africa, once only a minor trading partner, have boomed. While many other nations have begun to express anxiety over China’s growing military might, a June 2007 Pew Research Center Poll reported that most of Africa and many neighboring Asian countries held favorable views of China.
The same desire for a powerful, stable country that drove the CCP to adopt wiser economic policies under Deng Xiaoping will drive China’s international economic expansion. And unless the CCP undergoes a radical change of heart, this desire will remain entirely heedless of the value of democracy and human rights. This trend is already apparent in China’s unscrupulous support of brutal regimes around the world, from Sudan to North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Although China has recently begun to moderate some of these positions, it still has a long way to go before cleaning up its own home; and its ever-insatiable energy demand will continue to force it to make tough decisions about where its money flows.
Amidst the building excitement over the Beijing Olympics, the free world must remember that “Peacefully Rising China,” already a world power and still growing stronger, is ruled by people whose values center upon the acquisition and exercise of power rather than respect for individual rights and freedom. Such values will inevitably come into conflict with America’s and will pose a continuing risk to stability and peace.