The Magazine

Gold Medal in Tyranny

A look at China's authoritarianism.

Mar 31, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 28 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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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" force Beijing 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.

Apparently not.

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, and Sichuan provinces. There have been hunger strikes, acts of self-immolation, some attacks on the ethnic Han Chinese majority, sit-ins, marches, and candle-light vigils.