China's Olympic Opportunity
By MARTIN LEE
October 17, 2007
When President George W. Bush accepted President Hu Jintao's invitation to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Mr. Bush's press secretary said that he was going to the Games as "a sports fan, not to make any political statement." I too am a great sports fan -- especially of the Soccer World Cup -- but I would encourage President Bush to take a broader vision of the possibilities for the Beijing Games. He should use the next 10 months to press for a significant improvement of basic human rights in my country, including press, assembly and religious freedoms.
This should be possible, since Chinese leaders have promised to make these improvements anyway. In their pledges to the International Olympic Committee while bidding for the Games and since, China's leaders at all levels repeatedly assured the world that they would use the Games to go beyond improving the country's physical infrastructure.
"By applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city's development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights," one of China's key Olympic figures, Deputy Mayor Liu Jingmin, told the Washington Post in 2001. Then, Mr. Liu said, "If people have a target like the Olympics to strive for, it will help us establish a more just and harmonious society, a more democratic society, and help integrate China into the world."
I couldn't agree more. But instead of the hoped-for reforms, the Chinese government appears to be backsliding on its promises, including in Hong Kong where we have near total political paralysis, not the promised road to full democracy. That is no reason to give up on the prospects for reform in China. But it is reason to step up the direct engagement on these pressing issues.
In accepting the invitation to attend China's Games, President Bush said this would be "a moment where China's leaders can use the opportunity to show confidence by demonstrating a commitment to greater openness and tolerance." Instead of a "moment" of change, China needs structural and long-term reforms: placing the Communist Party under the rule of law, unshackling the media and Internet, allowing religious adherents to freely practice their faiths, ceasing harassment of civil-society groups that work on AIDS and the environment, and addressing modest calls for accountability in the political system. Mr. Bush and other world leaders planning to attend the Olympics should not wait for the opening ceremony, but must start now with sustained efforts to achieve this agenda.
One reason for optimism about the possibilities for progress in China is recent Olympic history. When South Korea bid for the 1988 Games, the country was a military dictatorship. Due in good part to the prospects for embarrassment and international engagement, the Olympics helped kick off an overdue peaceful political transformation in South Korea just six months before the launch of the Seoul Games. Since then, South Korea has endured as one of Asia's most stable and vital democracies. The parallels between South Korea and China are not exact, but the lesson is that the Olympics certainly present an opening to raise these issues in the context of the Chinese government's own promises.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, there are campaigns to boycott the Beijing Games over the Chinese government's trade with and support for regimes in Sudan and Burma. As a Chinese person, I would encourage backers of these efforts to consider the positive effects Olympic exposure could still have in China, including scrutiny by the world's journalists. This is certainly the time for Chinese leaders to step up and constructively use their clout in Asia and Africa. In so doing, Beijing should open a new chapter of responsible foreign policy and convince the world it is not oblivious to these issues.
Chinese people around the world are proud that China will host the Games. China has the world's fastest growing economy, and may indeed put on history's most impressive Olympic Games next August. But how does it profit our nation if it wins gold medals but suffers from the continued absence of democracy, human rights and the rule of law?
It is my hope that the Games could have a catalytic effect on the domestic and foreign policies of the Chinese government, and that the Chinese people will remember the Games long after they are held -- not merely for medals won, but also because they were a turning point for human rights and the rule of law in China. That would be something worth cheering.