In the United States, hosting the Olympics, or the World Cup or other events with worldwide standing is a big deal, to be sure, but it's seen as an accomplishment for the city involved, rather than the nation as a whole. The city will put up the money, will build the infrastructure, will sweep the homeless of the streets, will crack down on public drinking, etc. But the actions and policies of the federal government, or even the state government, are irrelevant to the success or failure of the event.
This is not so in much of the world. My wife still lived in South Korea when the 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul. It was a whole nation affair, and South Koreans not only worked hard to build great stadiums, arenas and hotels, but also to make sure that elements of their culture that foreigners didn't like - such as eating dog meat - were tucked away out of sight. Because of foreign pressure, Korea even held their first democratic elections. They were largely a farce, but they paved the way for South Korea becoming a true democracy with solid protections in place for its citizens' freedoms. Highways were built, and road signs, maps, etc., were translated into English, Chinese and to a more limited extent, other languages.
South Korea is certainly not the only nation to take such measures because of hosting the Olympics, though I suspect that reforms are usually more temporary in other places than they were for Korea. Oh, and for the record, my wife - a high school sophomore at the time, caught a homerun
ball during a US-Japan baseball game and was able to meet and fall madly in love with
members of Egypt's delegation. They were so dreamy!
Which type of infatuation has been evident in US-China relations since at least Nixon's visit in 1972* with no change other than intensification these last 35 years no matter who is in the White House or Congress. The United States' strangely submissive relationship with China is very well presented by James Mann in the February 19, 2007 issue of The American Prospect
. I'm not sure if the link requires registration or even paid subscription, but if it does, it's worth it even if you don't consider yourself a liberal.
The roots of US capitulation to the Chinese government's wishes, Mann says, lie in the belief that China will liberalize politically, that this is an inevitable outcome for the nation that requires only time and whatever strategy best serves the interests of whoever is pushing the idea at the time.
At first, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, this idea benefited the U.S. national-security establishment. At the time, the United States was seeking close cooperation with China against the Soviet Union, so that the Soviet Union would have to worry simultaneously about both countries.
As we now know, this was a depressingly common strategy during the Cold War, with the USA shacking up with whatever two-bit john happened to come around promising help against the big, bad Soviet Union. Certainly using the specter of the Soviet Empire made such ignoble alliances an easy sell to a misinformed and therefore frightened populace.
In the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, the idea of a politically changing China attracted a new constituency, one even more powerful than the Pentagon: the business community. As trade and investment in China became ever more important, American companies found themselves repeatedly beset with questions about why they were doing business with such a repressive regime. The paradigm of inevitable change offered multinational corporations the answer they needed. Not only was China destined to open up its political system, but trade, the theology held, would be the key that would unlock the door. It would lead to political liberalization and to democracy, with or without the support of the Chinese leadership. Accordingly, no one outside China needs to do anything, or even think much about the subject. Why bother to protest a crackdown or urge China to allow political opposition if you know that democracy, by the inexorable laws of history, is coming anyway?
It's interesting the way people talk about the Gilded Age
in America, as if it were a thing of the past. It's clear from our rising inequality, stagnating economic growth for all but the super rich and systematic dismantling of worker protections in this country that all of the advances made during the 20th
century were but an interruption of our corporations' and economic elites' steady march toward complete domination of this country's wealth.
But we are told that the USA is still somehow a place where anyone, with hard work and creativity, can go from penniless beggar to billionaire - even though our social mobility rates are far lower than almost all other developed nations. This fantasy is what fuels not only our compliance toward the ways that US businesses exploit their workers and even their customers, but also our blindness toward the practices in other countries that treat their workers even worse than we do and which allow our corporations to bypass what safety regulations and quality standards we have in place.
Indeed, as we survey the wreckage of our Constitution after 6 years of the Bush administration, we should now be completely disabused of the idea that capitalism will lead inevitably toward political liberalization. Even if you don't agree with the idea that Bush is feverishly trying to consolidate enough power before November 2008 to cancel the elections and disband Congress - something I consider completely ludicrous yet not beyond the imaginings of Bush, Cheney and Rove - it must be clear to everyone that Americans are not as free as we were before Bush took office. Hell, even those who support what Bush has done admit that he has restricted our freedoms in the name of making us "safer."
The Chinese government has been even more successful at using the wealth generated through increased engagement with the West to consolidate its power. Beijing understands that a population experience gains in wealth and access to niceties such as clean water is much less likely to rise up and make demands. In fact, they seem to be taking a page from the USA, setting up a system that heaps rewards upon a few and doles out a few trinkets to the rest, held together by a powerful mythology that anyone, with hard work and creativity, can go from penniless beggar to billionaire.
US corporations are, of course, more than willing to go along with this, investing heavily in the massive markets that China contains, capitulating to the government's demands that they censor their offerings and otherwise adapt completely to the local market. For our part, our corporations' heavy involvement in China means that products made there in unsafe and unsanitary conditions are given the stamp of approval that comes with familiar, established brands.
Our electronics, our plastics, our toys, our food, our toothpaste - almost everything that we use on a daily basis is now made in China, by workers in unsafe conditions, making hardly any money at all, with no protection from mistreatment by employers. These are American companies using the Chinese government's openness to foreign investment to bypass the types of basic safety and quality protections that Americans take for granted, and have taken for granted for decades now. These cheap - not inexpensive, cheap
- products flood our market, making it impossible for American sources to compete effectively, thereby putting people out of work, forcing bankruptcies and slowing down the countries economic development. At the same time, the fact that Chinese workers can be completely abused and exploited means that the economic development which is supposed
to result in political liberalization is not, in fact, taking place.
That's really the difference between the types of changes that China is making in advance of the 2008 Olympics and the changes that South Korea made in the runup
to 1998. South Korea felt forced to make substantive changes, not only in the number of restaurants offering Po Shing Tang
- dog soup - but in the way the nation was governed. By contrast, China is making changes that consolidate the government's hold on power and weaken the various dissident groups within the country. Beijing is doing things that please the business interests, and therefore the governments, of the West and seeing these governments and business interests dutifully carry out their role of propagandists for the Chinese government.
The danger that China poses is not only to its own citizens and to us as consumers of the goods produced in the completely unregulated market there, but also in the form of governments around the world that can, with Chinese support, mistreat their own citizens and completely ignore the US and even European governments that try to pressure them to change. This is seen most clearly in the Sudan, which depending upon the source is either in the midst of a civil war or a government-sponsored genocide. No matter what way we look at it, atrocious acts are committed by the thousands every day, and the UN, the African Union, the EU and the USA have proven completely ineffective at getting al
, the president of Sudan, to do anything about it. The reason is that China is that country's biggest customer, and China has very little incentive to pressure Sudan to change its policies. The plain fact is that the government of China does not care
does to his people as long as the oil keeps flowing. If Beijing isn't going to spend money or time worrying about its own citizens, why should it spend the effort on any other country's citizens?
This is where the Olympics come in. Even though the Olympic-level scrutiny of the last several years has resulted in a few changes, Beijing has made sure that they are flashy, superficial reforms that do little to actually accomplish anything for the peasants in Beijing itself, let alone in the western and southern provinces. But using the Olympics as leverage can still achieve results, as with the case of Steven Spielberg using his position as creative consultant
to Beijing for the games to pressure Beijing to send a high-level representative to Darfur
to tour refugee camps and talk with al
about the ongoing conflict. That visit is the only
reason that UN peacekeepers are in Sudan at all. Continued Chinese pressure upon al
is not just our best hope for progress in Sudan, it's our only hope.
That's why it was so significant that Bill Richardson recently called for a boycott
of the 2008 Olympic Games if China does not start to address its problems and make real changes to the way that its citizens are treated and the way that governments reliant upon Beijing's
patronage act toward their citizens. A proposed boycott would also place tremendous pressure upon US companies doing business with China, since association with the Olympics is a tremendous money-maker for them. If the USA doesn't show up, American interests in the Olympics will plummet, ensuring that the money already spent to secure endorsements and advertising rights will be completely wasted.
Richardson was also very savvy in calling for the boycott during a debate, knowing that it would put his competitors on the spot. Edwards predictably saw the value of this idea and said "that we should use whatever tools available to us," while Dodd
, also predictably, opposed the idea.
I've no doubt that there will never be such a boycott under the Bush administration. What's unfortunate is the number of Democrats who also are so beholden to this nation's business interests that they would also never seriously consider such a possibility. But the time has long past that we can expect "engagement" or any other buzzword of the political right or left to do anything of substance in China. Our food supply is poisoned, our manufacturers are continuing to go out of business, much of our foreign debt is held by Beijing, repressive governments the world over are receiving far more help from China than the Soviet Union was ever able to supply, and China's government is consolidating its hold over the citizenry even during the public spectacle of the 2008 Olympics.
When those Olympic games are over, we will be faced with a richer, more powerful, influential and integrated China than now. I don't see any way to hinder this at all. The incoming administration - hopefully Democratic - is going to have its hands full just trying to repair America's relationships with our allies, let alone countries like China or even those completely hostile to us. On top of that, the next president is going to have to deal with the idea of another country dictating policy to us, rather than the other way around.Update
: I think my point needs to be clearer. The situation in Sudan, our economic development, our standing in the world, the safety of our food supply, the fate of over 1 billion people, and even - assuming we can ever recover from our Iraq debacle - our influence in the Middle East all hinge upon China. And the influence that we can exert upon China, rather than the other way around, hinges largely if not completely upon what we do in the leadup
to the 2008 Olympic Games. Missing this opportunity to pressure Beijing to make real changes will be a foreign and economic policy blunder of such proportions to dwarf even the Iraq War.*How's that for a segue?