Beijing's Catch-22

THE back-and-forth over Beijing's restrictions on Internet access for foreign journalists during the Olympics is just the latest in a series of complaints that China is not fulfilling its promises to the International Olympic Committee. These complaints only fuel critics of China's poor human rights record who deplore President George W. Bush's decision to attend the Games. This view is wrong-headed.

By Victor D. Cha (Politics of sports)

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Published: Wed 6 Aug 2008, 9:49 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

The president left Washington on Monday for a week-long trip to Asia, including four days in China beginning Friday, when he and other world leaders — including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is also representing the European Union, and Japan's prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda — are scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies of the Games. Other world leaders, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, have decided not to attend.

Boycotting the Games or the opening ceremony will achieve nothing but a symbolic snub of the Chinese. It amounts to a checkmark in the box labeled, "Have you done your share to protest the Olympics today?"

On the other hand, Bush's decision to attend the Games and to hold private meetings with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, gives him the opportunity to press the human rights case on Tibet, Burma and other issues, and could be infinitely more productive in working to produce changes in Chinese behaviour.

What often gets missed in all the noise about Beijing boycotts is the process of political change that is already being spurred on by the Olympics. Beijing's leaders have bitten off more than they can chew. They face an inescapable Catch-22 when it comes to their cherished Olympics: They seek the Olympic limelight to showcase China's greatness, but they must pay the price for that limelight in terms of intense pressures for political change. To ignore these pressures would embarrass China and spoil its coming out party.

And so China is changing. In Sudan, Hu stated in 2004 that Chinese aid to Khartoum is "free of political conditionality." His Trade Ministry official was more blunt: "We import from every oil source we can." But since then, Hu has pressed for Sudan's acceptance of a UN-African Union peacekeeping force in the country, and in March 2007, quietly removed Sudan from Beijing's preferred trade-status list, effectively taking away incentives for Chinese companies doing business in Sudan. In Burma, the Chinese quietly hardened their stance towards the military junta after the September 2007 crackdown against peaceful monk demonstrations. Beijing cut arms sales to the regime and played an instrumental role in getting UN representation on the ground.

The point here is not to sing China's praises. But Beijing did not step up on either issue until nongovernment organisations, entertainers, politicians and athletes linked Sudan and Burma to something the Chinese held very dear to their own prestige. Pre-Olympic pressures affected political change in a way that years of diplomacy could not.

Moreover, pre-Olympic changes in Beijing's foreign policy will not melt away once the Olympic spotlight dims. This is because every positive adjustment by China is met with higher world expectations for Beijing to do more.

Complaints by journalists that Beijing is not meeting its commitment to allow for Press freedoms in the run-up to the Games are predictable. But with 20,000 journalists flowing into Beijing, restrictive news access in China will never again be enjoyed by the rulers in the same way.

Beijing's demands for Tibetan cooperation during the Olympics as a condition for continuing talks with the monks in Lhasa is typical Beijing parochialism. The start of these talks, however, sets a higher standard of dealing with the autonomous region's grievances that Beijing cannot simply walk away from after the Games. This is the slippery slope of change that Beijing has now embarked upon with these Games. Critics are right that Beijing has shown no flexibility on domestic human rights, but the last thing that these domestic dissidents want is for the world to skip the Games. On the contrary, they want the world to come to Beijing to witness their plight.

The Olympics is forcing one of the world's most rigid systems to change. The appointment of the Communist Party's rising star, Xi Jinping, as the Olympics "czar" this past spring was very un-Chinese. Widely acknowledged as the future leader of China, Xi will have to internalise all that is at stake for China in these Olympics and contend squarely with the Catch-22 of political change. China will be a different country after the Games — whether the Chinese Communist Party likes it or not.

Victor D. Cha is director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Pacific Council for International Policy. He is author of "Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia."

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