Will the Beijing Olympics ultimately help or hurt the cause of freedom in China? THE AMERICAN asked eight experts.

From August 8 to August 24, China’s capital city will host the 29th Summer Olympics. It promises to be as much a political event as an athletic spectacle. With that in mind, THE AMERICAN asked eight China experts to answer this question: Will the Beijing Olympics ultimately help or hurt the cause of freedom in China? Here are their responses.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics, 600,000 armband-wearing citizen volunteers will join 90,000 police, military, and paramilitary forces in Beijing, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on security technology to help enforce the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) writ. No one should be under any illusion that the Olympics will pry China open. On the contrary, the party’s repressive techniques will grow stronger thanks to Western technology and training. The requirements for security technology in Beijing are large, and Western companies are rushing in to meet them. Some American companies are installing surveillance systems, while others are providing networks of security cameras.
As the former head of criminal intelligence for Hong Kong puts it, “They are certainly getting the best stuff.” The “best stuff” is similar to the technology that was supposed to liberalize China throughout the 1990s. It didn’t. Instead, Internet and telecommunications technology was put to work by the Communist regime against its citizens. The news that grabs headlines—for example, when Western companies provide Chinese authorities with the IP addresses of known dissidents—tells just part of the story of a Chinese security apparatus that has grown stronger through international commerce. Even before the Olympics, tens of thousands of Internet police monitored antiparty activities each day.  During and after the Olympics, this number will certainly grow.
The Olympics will not pry China open. The Communist Party’s repressive techniques will grow stronger thanks to Western technology and training.
After the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, many foreign experts predicted that the days of one-party rule were numbered. But that was 20 years ago, and the CCP is still very much in power. True, it survives thanks to impressive economic growth. But no less important is the CCP’s acquisition of sophisticated and modern technology to squelch dissent. The party simply has more resources to employ against those trying to use new technologies to push for a more open China.
In other words, by deepening trade with China, in particular technology trade, the West threw the CCP a lifeline. Although the “Tiananmen Sanctions” were meant to prohibit the sale of goods and services that would improve the repressive means of the state, there is simply no way for companies to ensure that technologies sold for commercial purposes are not diverted to police or security use. The Olympics have further opened the spigots.
All countries, including China, have legitimate concerns about terrorist threats during the Olympics. The problem is that the CCP’s definition of “terrorist” includes Tibetans and Uighurs agitating for greater religious and cultural freedom. Indeed, as Liu Shaowu, a senior Chinese official in charge of Olympic security, has stated, the CCP has set its sights on anyone taking part in any protest. Even democratic countries err on the side of more centralized power when faced with potential threats. But China is not a democratic country: there are no checks on power, and there is no recourse for a citizen whose rights are abused. The ruling elite uses legitimate security concerns as excuses to become even more dictatorial.
With foreign journalists pouring into China during the Olympics, there will surely be protests against the CCP. But if the 1990s are any lesson, the Chinese Communists will emerge stronger, prouder, and more sophisticated in their repressive techniques, and they will be armed with the finest Western technologies to crush dissent well past the Olympics.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Olympics are likely to have a modestly positive impact on freedom, civil and political rights, and kindred values in China. This unexciting prospect is more plausible than predictions that Beijing 2008 will bring a reprise of the 1988 Seoul Games (sometimes credited with expediting South Korea’s democratization) or the 1980 Moscow Games (sometimes interpreted as hastening Gorbachev’s reforms, and thus the demise of Soviet Communism). Marginal change is also more likely than the bleak vision of a Beijing Olympiad reminiscent of the 1936 Berlin Games, which handed an odious host regime a propaganda coup.
Having led China through meteoric economic growth and rapid ascension as a regional and aspiring great power, the reform-era Chinese regime is far more resilient than its counterparts in South Korea and the Soviet Union were during the 1980s. Also, China remains below the level of affluence and related social changes that presaged democratization in South Korea and other East Asian countries. On the other hand, and despite heavy investment in Games-related security and the suppression of Games-linked dissent, China has come a long way from its Maoist past. It has engaged the outside world’s norms and institutions, introducing freedoms and openness that would have been unimaginable under Mao.
To be sure, the run-up to the Olympics has included much that is bad for freedom and human rights. The regime has used poorly paid and mistreated migrant workers to build Olympics-related projects; it has ousted urban residents to make room for that construction; it has quashed many protesters (including those calling for Tibetan autonomy, religious freedom, freedom of the press, property rights, and labor rights); and it has scolded, without apparent irony, its critics for “politicizing” the Games.
If the Games present China as a powerful and capable state, this will increase expectations that China live up to international human rights standards.
Still, the net effect of the Olympics is likely to be favorable. If the Games go smoothly, this should boost Chinese rulers’ confidence that the liberalizing influences the Olympics foster do not threaten their political order. If the Games present China as a powerful and capable state, this also will increase expectations that China live up to international human rights standards. If the regime does not respond, Beijing will find it harder to persuade the world that China’s rise will be “peaceful” and “harmonious.”
If the Games show the regime’s repressive face—especially if there are telegenic moments akin to the lone man standing before the tanks in Tiananmen Square or a military vehicle toppling the “Goddess of Democracy”—then post-Olympics China will have a more difficult time achieving the international recognition and rehabilitation the Games were supposed to provide, as they variously did for South Korea in 1988, Germany in 1972, and Japan in 1964. More broadly, the Olympics likely will increase China’s openness to international ideas and foreigners’ monitoring of its human rights record. While global attention to China will wane, it is unlikely to recede to pre-Olympics levels. At least in the long run the Beijing Games promise to be another small step in China’s long march toward greater global engagement and political transparency.
Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Will the Beijing Olympics ultimately help or hurt the cause of freedom in China? Once one realizes that any expansion of trade—in goods, sports, ideas, or capital—widens the range of individual choice, the answer to this question is obvious. The Olympic Games will link China more closely to the free world, and the millions of people who view the Games will see firsthand the progress China has made since it opened to the outside world 30 years ago.
But the world will also hear the cries of demonstrators who rightly recognize the repression of human rights in China. Those protests, however, should not shut down the Games and deny Chinese and other athletes the opportunity to pursue their dreams of winning Olympic gold.
China has come a long way since Mao Zedong made capitalism a crime and abolished private property, but the CCP has yet to accept the basic principle of freedom. Today, Chinese people are allowed to own their own homes and are free to start their own businesses, to work in the nonstate sector, and to travel and trade.
The Olympics will allow the Chinese to take pride in their progress and to show the rest of the world that China is a peaceful rising power, not an inevitable enemy of the West.
But the state continues to deny people freedom of expression and to maintain its monopoly on political power. Nonetheless, one should not lose sight of the positive impact of economic liberalization. As Jianying Zha, author of China Pop, has noted, “The economic reforms have created new opportunities, new dreams, and to some extent, a new atmosphere and new mindsets…. There is a growing sense of increased space for personal freedom.”
In March 2004, the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended the official Chinese constitution, which now proclaims, “The lawful private property of citizens is inviolable.” And in 2007, the NPC passed a landmark property law to better protect ownership rights. Such legal changes would have been unthinkable during Mao’s reign.
In 1978, China’s foreign trade sector barely existed and was dominated by a handful of state trading companies. Today, the foreign trade sector is open to virtually anyone, and China is the world’s third-largest trading nation. The transition from central planning to a “socialist market economy” has allowed millions of people to escape from poverty and has increased the demand for safeguarding newly acquired property.
The Beijing Olympics will allow the Chinese people to take pride in the progress they have made and to show the rest of the world that China is a peaceful rising power, not an inevitable enemy of the West. “Peaceful development” has been the mantra of China’s leaders since 1978. Their primary goal has been economic development. Treating China like Cuba or North Korea would be counterproductive.
We should recognize the progress China has made and hope for a peaceful and prosperous China. However, we should not confuse market socialism with market liberalism. More importantly, we should remind the Chinese leadership that official proclamations of human rights must be backed up with institutions that limit the power of government and allow people freedom under a just rule of law.
Brave protesters are reminding the world of what still needs to be done in the cause of Chinese freedom. Their voices should not be shut out in the quest for Olympic gold.
James A. Dorn is a China specialist at the Cato Institute and editor of The Cato Journal.
There is considerably more freedom in China today than there was at the height of the Mao era in the early 1970s. Economically, politically, and socially, the degree of personal freedom has continued to increase since the early 1980s, even though change has sometimes been fitful. It is hard to see how the 2008 Olympics can have anything other than a slight impact on the pattern of developing freedom.
The increase in economic freedom has been the most dramatic change in China during the last three decades: for entrepreneurs, managers, and peasants. We have seen the emergence of an entrepreneurial class that has sped up the pace of growth and change. In a very real sense, economic freedom has made it possible for Beijing to host the Olympics, both by integrating China into the world economy and by providing the party-state with the resources to finance the event. If the unveiling of the new buildings and infrastructure associated with the Olympics is a reliable guide, the Games will showcase the achievements of economic liberalization.
It is unlikely that the Games will expedite China’s social liberalization. In fact, the continued evolution of domestic freedoms may be temporarily halted.
Many foreign observers have expected China’s integration into the world economy and its economic development to lead almost automatically to increased political freedom. There have indeed been some gains. Independent political space has expanded, albeit slowly, which has made room for a range of new institutions, including chambers of commerce, nongovernmental organizations, and even loosely defined “activist” groups. All the same, more dramatic political change is unlikely absent a major reform movement within the CCP, a state crisis, and widespread unrest. And in any case, the Olympic Games are not likely to affect this trajectory.
Socially, Chinese people have won many new freedoms. For example, it has become much easier to move around China in search of work or leisure. Employment opportunities are more market-driven than ever before. The standard of living has improved dramatically for most people, providing them with greater opportunities for personal expression. Cultural activities and artistic expression have started to flourish, with the aid of greater private funding.
At the same time, there is little doubt that social customs and China’s entrenched inequalities of class, sex, and region have been slower to change. For that matter, it is unlikely that the Summer Games will expedite China’s social liberalization. On the contrary, there is the strong possibility that, due to the increased public expression of Chinese nationalism associated with the Olympics, the continued evolution of domestic freedoms may be temporarily halted.
David S. G. Goodman is a professor of contemporary China studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Will the Beijing Olympics ultimately help the cause of freedom in China?
The short answer is no.
The longer answer is still no, but somewhat more encouraging. China is in the midst of a long-term economic, social, and political transformation. At the start of China’s opening 30 years ago, few could have foreseen its rapid economic growth, its increasingly globalized citizenry, its membership in international and regional institutions, and its often responsible behavior as a great power. Yet as far as China has come, there remain many areas in which Chinese rights do not meet international standards.
However, nobody has any idea whether or when China will become democratic, whether or when China’s economic and intellectual rights will match its GDP growth, or whether the CCP can “muddle through” for the next generation. The Chinese people themselves will decide this over time, and the choices made today will affect how and when the process unfolds.
Hosting such a global event throws a spotlight on China and makes it clear that China’s own interests are furthered by continuing domestic reforms.
So what is the role of external influence on that process? The two main approaches to swaying another country’s internal affairs can be characterized as “cursing the darkness” and “lighting a candle.” Neither is likely to work by itself, but a combination of approaches to China is the strategy most likely to succeed.
To be sure, those hoping for a dramatic change in China will be disappointed, and it is hard to imagine external pressure (“cursing the darkness”) having an immediate effect. Realistically, barring fundamental change in the ruling Communist Party, political rights in China will be the slowest to improve. If America pressures China to reform, it is likely to sour relations between our two governments at a time when Sino-American cooperation is crucial to solving many environmental and strategic problems. It may also provoke a nationalist, anti-American backlash among the Chinese people.
“Lighting a candle”—that is, engaging China and making it clear that responsible behavior is in Beijing’s interests—may bring some benefits, but progress will be slow. The Beijing Olympics are one example of this approach: hosting such a global event throws a spotlight on China and makes it clear that China’s own interests are furthered by continuing domestic reforms. Yet the Olympics will merely be one more step in China’s long transformation, and the process will be gradual at best.
Ultimately, Chinese freedoms will arise when Chinese themselves, both inside and outside of the government, decide that the best way to govern themselves, their economy, and their society is through a model in which basic freedoms are expressly present. China is well along that path, and the role of the Olympics will be one small factor in its transformation.
David C. Kang is a professor of government and an adjunct professor at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. His latest book is “China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia” (Columbia University Press).
On a recent flight from Beijing to Los Angeles, I read the eloquent writings of Mandarin Yung Wing, a senior bureaucrat during the time of the Manchu regime in China and the first Chinese national to graduate from Yale University (class of 1854). His story is instructive in understanding how the Olympics might advance freedom in China, if at all.
Yung Wing was responsible for creating a pathway for Chinese students to study in the United States, for transferring U.S. machine-technology to China, and for promoting the rights of Chinese workers in the Western world. He was a successful human bridge between the West and China at a time of turbulence, including the U.S. Civil War and China’s Taiping Revolution.
His bridging was based on a deep understanding of both societies, and on finding helpful change agents in both China and the West. This meant “working within” both systems. That may sound like a euphemism for acquiescing to unsavory acts, but it is not, as Yung Wing amply demonstrated through his disavowal of corruption in graft-ridden Manchu China.
Of course, many bridges—both personal and institutional—have been constructed since then, most recently following the modern phase of Chinese reforms initiated around 1978, a process interrupted by the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 but renewed by Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “southern tour” (in Chinese, nanxun). Seen in this light, the 2008 Olympics offer another opportunity to continue China’s bridging to the world.
The Olympics offer another opportunity to continue China’s bridging to the world.
With this progressive bridging have come freedoms of many sorts. Primary among these are freedoms from basic economic deprivation and hunger for hundreds of millions of Chinese. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of these freedoms. There is also much more information available than before, particularly regarding economic activity. For example, magazines such as Caijing, a leading business publication, would not have been feasible even a few years ago.
Of course, there are many freedoms that remain unrealized in China. There is little freedom to express religious beliefs—witness the tension between the party-approved Catholic Church and the underground one—and to debate politics.
During the Beijing Olympics, the government has promised limited press freedoms in return for restraint exercised by foreign journalists. But it is hard to let this press freedom genie out of the bottle only partially. The party must contend with a host of entities pursuing goals that are sometimes at odds with its own.
What do Yung Wing’s efforts tell us about outside attempts to promote freedom in China? Simple: outsiders desirous of spurring change are more likely to make progress if they figure out a way to leverage the system within China. As Yung Wing demonstrated, outside catalysts need to work with China’s domestic reformers. There is no compelling evidence that force majeure will produce the desired results—something we should keep in mind before, during, and after the Beijing Olympics.
Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping Their Futures and Yours” (Harvard Business School Press).
The organizers of the 29th Summer Olympic Games in Beijing picked an auspicious date, 08/08/08, for the opening ceremony. In Cantonese, the number eight has the same sound as “making a fortune.” But it remains unclear whether the Beijing Olympics will be auspicious for the future of freedom in China. If history provides any guidance, it offers little encouragement.
Since the first modern Olympic Summer Games were held in Athens in 1896, the only authoritarian state that became democratic directly as a result of the Olympics was South Korea, which played host in 1988. Recent political developments within China do not augur well for an immediate expansion of political freedom. Although the average Chinese citizen enjoys more personal freedom today than he has during any period since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, essential political rights (such as dissent) and civil liberties (such as freedom of speech, association, and assembly) remain severely restricted.
With the Olympics approaching, the instinct of the Chinese government is not to relax political control but to strengthen its “stability-enhancing” capabilities and ensure that the Beijing Olympics will not be tarnished by unwelcome incidents of political protest or social unrest. As a result, urban slums, where thousands of petitioners from the rural provinces have temporary shelters, are being cleared. The Chinese media and the Internet are subject to more intense scrutiny. A leading AIDS activist, Hu Jia, has been sentenced to three years in prison.
It is understandable that the government would seek to provide security for the athletes and foreign visitors. But the unfortunate short-term effect of the Beijing Olympics has been to curtail Chinese freedoms, not to expand them.
The unfortunate short-term effect of the Olympics has been to curtail Chinese freedoms, not to expand them.
This puts the West in a quandary. Since the Chinese people genuinely want to see Beijing stage the most successful Olympics in recent memory, it is unrealistic to expect them to respond positively to international criticisms of China’s poor human rights performance. In all likelihood, such criticisms will backfire, convincing the average Chinese that the West is unwilling to give China the international respect it deserves. Indeed, there is a real risk that the cause of freedom in China might suffer a further setback due to such a nationalist-populist backlash.
However, the long-term effects of the Beijing Olympics on freedom are likely to be more positive, although very limited. Massive investments in Beijing’s infrastructure will speed up its urbanization. The millions of peasants who subsequently migrate to Beijing will not only have access to a higher standard of living, they will also have greater opportunities to agitate for political rights. But it would be too generous to credit the Beijing Olympics even with this possible upside. Modernization, not the staging of international sports competitions, has long proven to be a far more potent force for expanding freedom around the world.
Minxin Pei is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “China’s Trapped Transition” (Harvard University Press).
The Beijing Games will display China, not change it. The world will see a booming urban China that has temporarily separated economic freedom (which is permitted) and political freedom (which is denied), thus creating a hybrid system of liberalized commercial life coexisting with authoritarian politics. During the Games, the Chinese regime will do what it takes to put on a good show.
In the short term, freedom will shrink for those Chinese who are always on the threshold of repression. These include handicapped people, migrants from the countryside, AIDS activists, pro-democracy figures, bloggers who show a tendency to make “anti-China” statements, and others who mar China’s “harmonious society.” Over the long term, however, there may be a slight gain in freedom’s prospects, as sometimes occurs when the Chinese party-state has to rub shoulders with non-authoritarians.
Today, Chinese nationalism is burnished by economic progress, the space program, archaeological research to demonstrate how old and clever Chinese civilization is, and Japan bashing. The Olympic Games will add a little to this mix, if everything goes smoothly.
To be sure, hosting the Games is politically risky, as it means bringing international elements into China. Something could happen. But then, something could happen to China’s brittle political system at any time: for example, if disgruntled farmers mobilized; if Tibet or the Muslim area of Xinjiang grew restive (witness the recent protests by Tibetans in Lhasa and elsewhere); if Hong Kong tangled with Beijing; or if a regime collapse in North Korea brought millions of refugees flocking into northeast China.
Freedom can’t advance far under the present party-state. Beijing has learned how to turn the screws on and off according to circumstance. But a secular movement away from communism is gaining strength in China, and the Olympic Games may mildly help it.
The party-state will win some rounds with its organizational and theatrical skills. Beijing will look clean, bright, and exciting. If the Asian Games of two decades ago are any indication, the opening and closing ceremonies mounted by Beijing will be of the highest standard.
If there are massive international protests against the Games, most Chinese will rally behind their government.
Other elements of the show will strike informed observers as bittersweet. Few Americans will guess that the tap water in their five-star hotels is unavailable to the vast majority of Beijing residents. Most of the city’s tap water is not safe to drink. Only in the area housing athletes and some foreign visitors—and only during the Games—will drinkable water flow from faucets. Providing safe water for an Olympic elite and dirty water for the Chinese masses does not exactly boost the credentials of socialism.
Politicizing the Games would not have a good outcome. It would not free any Chinese political prisoners, nor would it make China’s foreign policy in the Third World more pro-democracy.
If there are massive international protests against the Beijing Games, most Chinese will rally behind their government.
Yes, the Olympics are a tool in the authoritarian state’s box of tricks. But a successful Olympics will be China’s glory more than the government’s. The government will sweat, repress, and spend billions. But the Chinese people will feel proud, and why shouldn’t they?
The Olympic Games are ultimately a sporting event. Unfortunately, they can’t be a 100 percent sporting event because authoritarian governments use the occasion for boasting. We may grimace at this, but we must stick by our principles. The United States did not need to trumpet the 1984 Los Angeles Games to fortify its political legitimacy. If other countries use the Olympic Games as a crutch, so be it. I think the world will get the message: free governments are relaxed, but repressive regimes are always fearful.
Ross Terrill’s books include “Mao” (Stanford University Press) and “The New Chinese Empire” (Basic Books). He was recently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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