In July 2001, when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) awarded the
2008 summer games to Beijing,
the international community began a thought-experiment. Wouldn't holding the
games in China
give the world's democracies "leverage" over that country's Communist
dictatorship? Wouldn't the increased media attention and "scrutiny"
to relax its security apparatus and increase civil liberties? Wouldn't the
Olympics be just another elevation in China's "peaceful rise"
to "responsible stakeholder," great-power status?
Seven years later, we have our answer. It is a resounding "No."
Over the last couple of weeks, riots have broken out in Tibet and
surrounding areas and been suppressed by brute force. The State Department's
annual report on human rights details an uptick in China's already dismal practices. A
prominent Chinese dissident has been put on trial in Beijing on charges of subverting state power.
The hypothesis that hosting the Olympics would mellow Beijing's ruthlessness has been proved false.
The experiment has failed.
Back in 2001, a bipartisan coalition of American political and business
elites supported the Chinese Olympics bid. Among them was the chairman of the
2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, future Massachusetts governor and
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who told reporters shortly
before the games were awarded to Beijing that the "Olympics are about
building bridges, not building walls." The former Clinton
national security adviser Samuel Berger wrote a Washington Post op-ed
entitled "Don't Antagonize China"
in which he argued that the "world looks different from China" and that it makes "no
sense" for U.S.
policymakers to "throw a monkey wrench" into the "boldest
market-oriented economic experiment in modern times." The Bush
administration was officially neutral on the Beijing bid. As then-White House spokesman
Ari Fleischer put it in his press briefing on the day the Chinese got the
games, the "president does not view this as a political matter."
There were many who had faith that the Chinese Communists would see the
Olympics as a chance to reform. "This now is an opportunity for China to
showcase itself as a modern nation," Fleischer said. The New York Times
editorialized that "there is reason to hope that the bright spotlight the
Olympics can shine on the Chinese government's behavior over the next seven
years" will benefit "those in China who would like to see their country
evolve into a more tolerant and democratic society."
The day after the IOC made its historic announcement, former Carter national
security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski--who these days advises Barack Obama--took
to the Times op-ed page to disavow any parallel between the 1980 Moscow
Olympics and the 2008 Beijing games. Brzezinski had helped plan the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics to protest the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But "the situation with China"
is "not only different," he wrote in 2001. It is also "more
complex." Sure, Brzezinski continued, "grievous human rights abuses
are being committed by the Chinese government. ... Tibet continues to be
repressed." The "regime as a whole is still committed to one-party
dictatorship." But don't believe your lying eyes. "China is
nonetheless becoming a much more open society," because millions of
Chinese "now have access to satellite television dishes" and
"even to the Internet."
Of course, hundreds of millions of Chinese have nothing but
dirt. Internet access is policed by the ever-more-sophisticated sentinels of
the Great Firewall. And prosperity, while a great public good, is a meager
substitute for the greater public good of natural rights such as the freedom to
publicly oppose one's government, to legitimate state authority through
elections, and to worship God as one sees fit.
Not to worry, Brzezinski suggested. Things will work out. The Olympics will
only intensify the "pressures for change." And Beijing will respond positively. It will have
no other choice.
On March 10, a small group of monks in Lhasa,
the capital of Chinese-occupied Tibet,
went to the Jokhang
Temple and began to chant
"Free Tibet" and "Dalai Lama." Soon other Tibetans joined
them. Police dispersed the protest, arrested the ringleaders, and prevented
monks from monasteries on the city's periphery from joining in. But the yak was
out of the bag, so to speak. The protests continued and over the last few weeks
have spread to Gansu, Qinghai,
provinces. There have been hunger strikes, acts of self-immolation, some
attacks on the ethnic Han Chinese majority, sit-ins, marches, and candle-light
The Chinese government's response has been simple. It has used all available
force, including deadly force, to crush the protests, while it heavily censors
the information the world receives about them. Lhasa has been sealed off. We don't know how
many people have died in the uprising--the numbers range from 16 (Beijing's official tally) to more than 80 (the estimate
from the Tibetan government-in-exile in India). Thousands of the People's
Armed Police have been mobilized. The People's Liberation Army appears to be
running logistics and resupply for them. Hundreds of people have been detained.
Dozens have been arrested. The security services have built checkpoints and
roadblocks. They regulate the flow of people into and out of the contested
areas. And as we go to press late on March 20, reports are that the Chinese
authorities largely have reestablished control.
In related news, on March 11, as unrest in Tibet was intensifying, the State
Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its annual
country reports on human rights practices. This year, for the first time, the
People's Republic of China
has been left off the list of the world's worst human-rights violators. China's absence
isn't due to diplomatic considerations in light of the upcoming Olympics,
acting assistant secretary of state Jonathan Farrar cautioned reporters. Nor is
it due, apparently, to any changes in China's human-rights practices.
Quite the contrary; those practices have gotten worse. According to the report,
in 2007 "controls were tightened in some areas," such as religious
liberty in Tibet and the
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, "freedom of speech and the media,
including the Internet; and the treatment of petitioners in Beijing." There were other serious
abuses, the report continues, including "extrajudicial killings, torture
and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor." The
"coercive birth limitation"--the One-Child policy--continues, too, "in
some cases" resulting "in forced abortion or sterilization."
Folks in China
also have a tendency to disappear. Dissidents and political prisoners are
sentenced to a network of maximum-security psychiatric prisons in which they
are penned with the dangerously insane and from which they have no chance of
reprieve. In addition, according to the State Department report, in 2007
"the party and state exercised strict political control of courts and
judges, conducted closed trials and carried out administrative detention."
there is no presumption of innocence, no adversary system of justice, often no
trial witnesses other than the defendant, no right against self-incrimination,
"no protection against double jeopardy, and no rules governing the type of
evidence that may be introduced." What little provision for due process
the law affords, the authorities tend to ignore.
The phrase "human rights in China" is little more than a
joke. And any Chinese who dare say as much in public face harsh penalties. One
of them, the AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia, stood trial last week on
charges of subverting state power. The road that led Hu to the Beijing Number
One Intermediate People's Court is long. Between August 2006 and March 2007, he
spent 214 days under house arrest. On May 18, 2007, as Hu and his wife, fellow
dissident Zeng Jinyan, were about to leave for an overseas speaking engagement,
Hu's house arrest was reinstated. From home, Hu continued to sign his name to
essays drawing attention to the depravities of the Chinese government. During
this time his daughter was born. On December 27, 2007, police removed him from
his home, where his wife and daughter were forced to remain. The police
confiscated every piece of electronic communications technology Hu and Zeng
possessed. Their telephone line was disconnected. Applications from Hu's lawyer
to meet with his client were denied until February 4, 2008, at which time the
police supervised the meeting. On the evening of March 6, Teng Biao, one of
Hu's lawyers, was forced into a vehicle and taken to an undisclosed location,
where he was told that it was not in his interest to talk to foreign
journalists about Hu Jia and human rights violations in China. Three
days before Hu's trial began, authorities informed his wife that she would not
be allowed to attend. In the end only Hu's mother was allowed into the
courtroom. The trial was brief. A verdict is expected this week. Hu faces up to
five years in prison.
These are not isolated incidents. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San
Francisco-based nonprofit, has found that in 2007 Chinese arrests for
"endangering state security" were at their highest level since 1999.
This follows a doubling of such arrests between 2005 and 2006. Nor is the
Tibetan uprising isolated. The number of officially reported "public order
disturbances" has been on the rise for several years. China is
ratcheting up its defense spending. Its policy of "noninterference"
supports dictators in places like Sudan,
North Korea, Burma, Iran,
Venezuela, and Russia. Far
from imposing democratic pressure on Beijing,
the Olympic games seem to have done the exact opposite: They have emboldened
the Chinese dictatorship in its constant quest to obliterate any chance the
country has for a real politics.
There clearly wasn't a good reason, then, for China's absence from the State
Department's list of the worst human rights violators. Surely that absence
reflects the same naive view articulated seven years ago during the debate over
the awarding of the Olympics; the same facile argument American
elites--Democrats and Republicans, academics and bureaucrats, lobbyists and
corporate titans--have peddled for two decades: that our economic engagement
with China would lead inevitably to political liberalization. This does not
seem to be happening, however. Which raises some serious questions about our China policy.
Isn't it time we had a grown-up discussion about China's persistent
authoritarianism? This summer seems like a pretty good occasion to start it.