- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008


China clearly sees the Summer Olympics, which started Friday, as a grand, glorious, $40 billion, 10,000-athlete, internationally telecast coming-out party, a chance to show off its modernizing achievements as it begins to emerge as a superpower.

But something else is happening, something that will be and already is embarrassing for this sprawling, ancient nation eager for admiration, and yet, at the same time, potentially good for it and for the rest of the world that will have to live with China very much in its face for many years to come.

That something is the exposure and intense discussion of China’s constant, daily abuse of its own peoples’ most basic human rights, of its moral thuggery in Tibet, of its consistently irresponsible, murder-abetting conduct around the world and even of its offenses as the games approached.

To make room for Olympics structures, homes were destroyed and thousands of Chinese displaced. We’ve seen the suppression of protests, the detention of dissidents, a tightening of already-tight press restrictions, Internet censorship for visiting journalists and the beating and arrest of two Japanese reporters.

With the games days away, Chinese authorities included Joey Cheek on a long list of people refused admission to the country. Mr. Cheek, a 2006 winter Olympics gold medal winner, has been protesting the Chinese role in protecting Sudanese war criminals that have masterminded the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

The Chinese regime is increasing its “authoritarian grip over Beijing,” says the Economist in an editorial that then worries that the country is experiencing a terrible setback because of the Olympics. The newsmagazine noted that freedom had been expanding in China, but that the Olympics was generating invigorated repression that had never entirely disappeared. Criticism of China, the magazine says, simply spurs increased and dangerous nationalism among the Chinese people.

A professor from Portland State University differs, and in my view, has the better argument.

Bruce Gilley writes in the Wall Street Journal Asia that “holding the regime up to scrutiny” will “accelerate the ongoing values transformation… needed to erode” its “popular support.” He notes how the 1980 games in Moscow brought the depredations of the Soviet Union into vivid view around the world, helping to strip its government of its pretenses of legitimacy. What happened later was Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension.

Discussion at officially permitted protest sites and stories leaked to visiting journalists will be among the catalysts for a less oppressive government, the China expert maintained. Mr. Gilley doesn’t believe for a second that nationalism will win out. The grievances are too many, the anger too great.

The Economist’s mistake was focusing too much on the moment instead of what can flow from it as the people of China and the other four-fifths of us become more intensely and fully aware of what’s amiss and what could be. The possibility of immediate, drastic change seems more than remote, to be sure, but movement toward increased liberty and a larger sense of responsibility does not. Some experiences of mine in a different part of the world suggest as much.

I was once a member of an organization called the Inter American Press Association. A chief concern of the organization was and is freedom of the press in Latin America, and we would visit countries with bad records, calling witness after witness to testify about conditions there and elsewhere in the Americas while doing our best to publicize our sessions.

The governments of host countries might rationalize or deny authoritarian practices, but here is what’s interesting - they would also sometimes make reforms, not major ones, maybe, but would at least crawl in more democratic directions.

Thanks largely to its embrace of a market economy, China has made enormous freedom-enlarging and material progress since the days when Mao was slaughtering millions in the name of his socialist ideals. For the sake of the Chinese people - but also for the sake of a world in which a far more powerful China will be an increasingly important player - that progress must not just continue, but continue at a swifter pace.

The Olympics just might be the means by which this happens. Let the critics roar.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.



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