By any measure, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics yesterday were a spectacular show. But in the weeks before this highly anticipated and in many ways controversial event, there has been hardly any good news. And the narrative from most of the Western media has been something like this: Back in 2001, China promised to behave and improve its human-rights records, in exchange for hosting the Games, but has broken its promises; there is more repression of Tibetans and other minorities, more jailing of dissidents, more harassment of the foreign press, more pollution, more censorship; in short, China is not democratizing.
Some of these concerns are genuine and understandable. After all, the Olympics is a great occasion for people from around world to celebrate the human spirit, to have their national teams compete under fair rules, and to bring us all closer together, as a global family. The host nation is called upon to live up to high expectations. China must learn to live with international scrutiny and with protests both inside and outside its borders. But the heavy reporting of negative news is painting an incomplete picture.
Few people I have talked to during my frequent visits to China accept the story that their country is worse off in terms of human rights than in 2001.
We can put aside the government's self-promoting claims, but well-informed Chinese believe that China has made considerable strides in human rights in the past seven years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations recognizes freedom from poverty as a major category of human rights. China has lifted some 100 million people out of poverty. Despite severe limitations, there are hundreds of new legislative enactments that protect property rights and workers' rights. China has abolished a system that restricted freedom of movement among regions, and citizens can hold on to their passports to travel abroad. The Supreme People's Court now reviews all death sentences. The children of migrant workers can go to school in the urban centres where their parents work. And China has joined more international human-rights treaties.
There are serious problems of implementation and of government interference, but these tangible steps are moving China toward the rule of law.
To enumerate these advances is not to endorse the Chinese government. They are mainly due to the Chinese people's continuous struggle, often against the mighty control apparatus of an authoritarian state.
Even in the political sphere, there is expanded leeway. China now leads the world in the number of Internet users – 250 million – and cellphone subscribers – more than 550 million people, who send tens of billions of short messages a day. Despite censorship, they use these new tools to push for more rights and openness, and to challenge the authorities with rising success.
The government still interferes, still rounds up severe critics, and has made life harder for foreign reporters since the Tibetan crisis in March. But China's progress since 2001 has been largely along the positive trajectory of the past three decades.
The Chinese enjoy more freedom than at any time in recent history. Ordinary Chinese people enthusiastically support the Beijing Olympics, contrary to many critics who label the Games as a government propaganda showcase.
The protests against the Olympic torch relays in London, Paris, and other cities in Western countries strengthened that feeling. Though not very fond of many aspects of the government, most of the Chinese people were outraged by those who spoke of the “genocide Olympics.” They want to have a good sports party, and they want to have a good time, like everybody else around the world. Their passion is for the basketball star Yao Ming and the Olympic gold hurdler Liu Xiang. They don't like to be lumped together with their government, and resent the exploitation of the occasion for political purposes.
Comparisons of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the Nazi regime's 1936 Games in Berlin are profoundly ignorant. Whereas Hitler's tyranny in Germany was intensifying through the 1930s, China has moved away from the personal dictatorship of Mao toward a more collective leadership. Whereas Germany went on to launch aggressive wars against other countries after the 1936 Games, leading to the disasters of the Second World War, China has in recent years pursued a good-neighbour policy and settled almost all its border disputes with the surrounding countries.
In addition to keeping a sense of balance in assessing where China is today, we also have to be realistic and patient about where China should be. Clearly, many human-rights advocates have strongly hoped and wished that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would follow the pattern of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in South Korea – that is, the Games would shortly lead to Western-style democratization. With a growing realization that this is unlikely to happen, some people have questioned the usefulness and even the legitimacy of having granted the Summer Games to Beijing in the first place.
Others, more moderately, have complained that neither human-rights groups nor the Western news media are doing a good job in highlighting China's human rights-problems, with the result that this Olympic year will be a sadly missed opportunity.
Such a perspective, well intentioned though it is, seems to have ignored the lessons from the Tibetan crisis and the Olympic torch relay protests earlier this year: A well-organized movement intended to raise awareness of the Chinese government's Tibetan policy overstepped into an attack on the Chinese people themselves, as if they were not worthy of hosting the Olympics. Scenes such as that of pro-Tibetan independence protesters violently seizing the Olympic torch from a wheelchair-bound female Paralympian in Paris were counterproductive; they angered the Chinese public and pushed them to rally around the government, strengthening the hand of the hardliners.
To have counted on the Beijing Olympics to deliver a fast political miracle inside China, or anything else that the outside world might have wanted, was both unrealistic and shortsighted. We need to ask: What happens to China, to all the problems and challenges it faces at the end of this month when the Games are over? What is the leverage then?
At the root of the “whatever China does, it is not good enough” attitude is a heavy dose of old colonial attitudes and racial prejudice, in the widely shared, although not always explicitly acknowledged assumption in both our elite and popular discourse that the West knows what is best for China, and must impose its values and guide the country in the direction the West wants.
Many critics do not understand that the real agent of change in China is neither foreigners nor the Chinese government. The Chinese people are the forces that move China forward. The media should refrain from portraying them as passive and ignorant followers of a Communist dictatorship or as a mass of nationalistic and xenophobic robots lacking in independent judgment.
With or without the Olympics, China's long march toward modernity and democracy will be driven primarily by internal dynamics, managed by the Chinese themselves and at their own pace. The Chinese people want human rights and democracy no less than we Canadians do. We certainly should not think that they demand less or deserve less. For most Chinese, the key questions are not about whether China will become a democracy, but rather how to get there, how long it will take and in what form.
Even the Chinese government is not a monolithic bloc. Internal debates on China's future go on all the time. Battles between reform-oriented leaders and the factions of repression and control are all part of the Chinese process of political reform.
The best the West can do is to support the progressive forces in China, as they transform that country as they have in the past 30 years. The speed of change may be not as fast as we wish, but we need to manage our expectations, just as the Chinese people have managed theirs.
In any case, the Olympics as an international event will have a beneficial impact on many aspects of China's development. China is a very open country now, more so than most people in the West realize. But the Games will push that openness further, and make the Chinese people more aware of the outside world. Let's look beyond what has happened in the past few months and what may come in the next few, and measure things with some historical depth. Decades later, many Chinese who are young now may well look back proudly and define the “patriot Games” of 2008 as the moment that transformed them into internationalists.
China is aiming at getting as many Olympic medals as the American contingent in the Summer Games. It has come a long way since the days when it was called the “Sick Man of Asia.” The Chinese have good reasons to be proud at their coming-out party. We should not hold back in pointing out China's problems, but we should also give credit to the Chinese people and wish the Beijing Olympics great success.Discussion, Monday: Is the West too hard on China?