»  National Review Online

March 1st, 2001

  No Chinese Olympics


Inspectors from the International Olympic Committee were in Beijing last week, studying that city's qualifications to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The purpose of the inspection was to make sure that Beijing has suitable facilities for staging Olympic events, can accommodate the expected number of visitors, has sufficient infrastructure to move them around efficiently and provide for their security, and so on. Other bidders for the honor are Paris, Osaka, Toronto and Istanbul.

The Chinese authorities want the Olympics very badly. They wanted the 2000 Games, and tried hard for them, but the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres was too fresh, and the bid was lost to Sydney. This rejection was regarded in China as a national calamity. In fact, when the I.O.C. made the announcement, they began by thanking all the cities that had bid, beginning with Beijing. A poor translation made it seem at first that Beijing had won; when the dreadful truth dawned, there were public displays of distress and anger.

The people of China want the Olympics almost as badly as their rulers do, though not entirely for the same reasons. For the Chinese government, which is of course an unelected dictatorship, hosting the Games would be a stamp of legitimacy. Their reading of it would be: "See, this is a normal country, and we are its lawful government." The stain of Tiananmen Square would have been washed away, and the Chinese Communist Party would have attained unblemished respectability.

The Chinese people do not particularly want to see further legitimization of the Communist Party, which is widely disliked for its corruption and lawlessness. They do, however, nurse an almost neurotic longing to be seen by the world as a great nation, or at least a normal one. The humiliations of the period 1842-1949, when China was dong ya bing fu — "the sick man of Asia" — are still deeply felt (and carefully kept alive by government propaganda), and rejection of yet another bid would be a blow to the rather fragile national psyche of China, with unpredictable consequences.

And as always in this kind of situation, there is a case to be made that however distasteful it may be to give added legitimacy to a lawless dictatorship, it is still worth doing so because China will be further opened up thereby. More outsiders will know China; Chinese people will know more about the world; trade and cultural links will be strengthened.

This argument seems to me much less potent than it was twenty years ago. Information about the outside world is not in short supply in China nowadays. Any Chinese person who wants to see a Hollywood movie, read the collected speeches of Al Gore, or browse National Review Online, can do so with only a modest investment of effort and ingenuity, and negligible fear of punishment. (Matter of fact, I just today got an email from an NRO reader in Beijing.) Foreign tourists flock to China already. To judge from the "Made in China" tags on pretty much everything my children own and wear, trade seems to be in a healthy condition; and there are very few impediments to our accessing their culture, or their accessing ours.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics — the only summer Games ever held in a communist country — suggest a major reason why Beijing should not win this bid to host the 2008 Games. Communist China resembles the old U.S.S.R. — and every other mature dictatorship, too, for that matter — in the following respects: it is unstable, and it is unpredictable. A few months before the opening ceremonies in Moscow, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. More than 60 countries, led by the U.S.A., stayed away from the Games in protest.

A great many things could happen in or around China between now and 2008. What if there is another eruption of protest in, say, 2007? What if there is a major uprising in the occupied territories of Tibet and East Turkestan? What if Taiwan somehow provokes the communists' wrath, or instability in Central Asia is taken in Beijing as a threat to the western borders, or some irresistible opportunity arises for the Chinese to "recover" the "lost territory" of Outer Mongolia? Nothing might happen between now and 2008 to bring the obloquy of the civilized world back upon the Chinese communists — or a hundred things might. Unpredictable, unstable — that is the nature of dictatorships, especially imperial ones.

Still, I think the main argument against giving the Olympics to Beijing is that the Chinese government wants the Games so desperately much. We should not give these tyrants anything they want, unless the giving will shift the balance of power away from them and to their people. It's not clear to me that giving them the Olympics would do that. The end of communist power in Russia was a very wonderful thing, but I have never seen any evidence that it was brought forward so much as a single day by the granting of the 1980 Olympics to Moscow.

The Chinese communists crave legitimacy for the same reason mafiosi crave it: the material rewards of crime soon lose their flavor when you cannot enjoy them in respectable society. And while the mafiosi at least divest themselves of their criminal enterprises and go legit before applying to the country clubs, the Chinese communists show no signs of being willing to change their habits.

Just this last Monday the State Department, in its annual report on the condition of human rights around the world, said that things have gotten worse in China, with more crackdowns on religion, on political dissent and on "any person or group perceived to threaten the government." On the very day the I.O.C. inspectors began their visit, police in eastern China told Shan Chengfeng's family that she had been sentenced to two years in a labor camp. Shan, 28, was detained January 15, two weeks after joining an appeal that asked the I.O.C. to pressure China to release her husband, Wu Yilong, and other dissidents. Savage repression of the peaceful Falun Gong sect continues, with hundreds now imprisoned and scores believed dead (112 according to a Hong Kong rights group; Falun Gong themselves say 143).

Back in the days of the old U.S.S.R. the exiled dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who had served many years in labor camps, used to say that the test a country should apply before according any mark of respect or respectability to the Soviets should be: What does it look like to the boys in the camps? Fortified by a stamp of legitimacy from the I.O.C., the Chinese Communists will persecute their own dissidents and religious and racial minorities with renewed vigor and confidence. Following I.O.C. approval of Beijing's bid, the following thing will happen daily in camps and prisons all over China and the territories China has occupied: Starved, ragged prisoners will be beaten by guards who, as they swing the clubs, will jeer: "See how much the world cares about you? They don't give a damn! They've awarded us the Olympics! We can do as we please with you — nothing will happen to us! The world loves us, and you are ON YOUR OWN!"

If our ideals of liberty and humanity mean anything at all, we should not let this come about. Everyone who can should speak out now, while the I.O.C. is scrutinizing the bids. U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos will be introducing a bill into the House in the next few days, urging rejection of China's bid. Let your own representative know that you support this bill. Don't let the I.O.C. give China's communist rulers the respectability they crave. What does it look like to the boys in the camps?