A rising economic and military power that stages the Olympic Games in its capital to demonstrate its superiority while jailing dissenters and repressing ethnic minorities. The description could just as well apply to Beijing this year as it did to Berlin in 1936. And indeed, many have drawn parallels between Communist China and Nazi Germany, furiously attacking President Bush and other world leaders for lending legitimacy to a brutal dictatorship by attending the grandiose opening.
The analogy, however, does not go very far.
While there is no doubt today that Western countries should have called Adolf Hitler’s propaganda bluff and boycotted the 1936 Olympics, the world is right to take part in the Beijing ongoing mega-party. Today’s China is without a doubt an unsavory dictatorship, but it is a very different kind of regime than was Nazi Germany or even the Soviet Union, whose 1980 Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by many Western countries.
Under Mao Zedong, China was a truly totalitarian state that brought misery and death to millions of people through economic mismanagement and political terror. But while Mao’s successors kept political power firmly in their own hands, they have otherwise discarded nearly every single idea of their former leader.
Starting with Deng Xiaoping, the country embarked on the most successful economic reform program in world history, lifting millions of people from poverty and up toward bourgeois prosperity. Step by step, they also broadened personal freedoms for most of their citizens, letting them decide for themselves what job to take, where to live and whom to marry.
Today China is far from a totalitarian society. As long as Chinese do not openly criticise the party, the party generally leaves them alone. The same applies to science, the arts and increasingly religion.
That does not justify the continuous jailing of dissidents, the repression in Tibet, the irrational persecution of the Falung Gong or the heavy censorship of the press and the Internet. And of course there are no free elections and no checks and balances on the power of the party.
But the party leadership has proven to be surprisingly responsive to public concerns, and there are even the first birth pangs of a civil society. There are more and more grassroot movements to fight corrupt officials, demand better environmental protection or stop construction of unwanted factories or roads. And even though people grumble, they generally regard the regime as both benign and legitimate.
When it comes to international affairs, China usually acts responsibly and almost always cautiously. The party’s goal is economic growth and prosperity, not territorial aggrandizement or regional hegemony.
The West may not like China vetoing United Nations Security Council sanctions against repressive regimes like Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, but even there, China’s rationale is the preservation of the status quo, not aggression. Vladimir Putin’s Russia may still be a more open society than China, but it is also a much bigger threat to its neighbors — as Georgians can testify these days.
Economic prosperity has not led to full-fledged democracy in China, as some experts had predicted a decade ago. Perhaps it never will.
But the rising middle class is making its voice heard, and will likely do so more and more. If current trends continue, China will soon resemble other authoritarian one-party states in Asia like Malaysia or Singapore. Perhaps one day it may follow in the footsteps of South Korea and Taiwan, where the ruling parties eventually abandoned their monopoly on power.
To be sure, those Chinese dissidents being persecuted today deserve the same respect and support that the West gave to recently deceased Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when he was jailed and then expelled for exposing the cruelties of Stalin’s terror. But it is important to remember that Solzhenitsyn was battling a decrepit regime that was impoverishing society and heading toward economic and political bankruptcy.
China, by contrast, is the poster boy for globalization, a success story on every front save politics. It still has lots to hide, but there is unquestionably much to celebrate, in business, in science and, as the Beijing Games have attested to, in sports.
These positive developments have come about in large part because the country began opening itself three decades ago to trade and foreign investment. The Olympics have admittedly brought out some of the negative sides of China’s regime, in particular over-centralization, leaders’ megalomania, nationalism and a desire for total control.
But the games may also turn out to be a step toward even more openness. Keep in mind that the 1988 Olympics in Seoul marked a political turning point for South Korea.
Perhaps the Olympic ideals would have been better served had Beijing’s games been staged a decade from now, but even in 2008 China deserves to be accepted as a legitimate Olympic host — one that ought to be admired for its organizational prowess and the excellence of its athletes. There is no Hitler-like tyrant sitting in Beijing taking the world on a nasty propaganda ride, just a group of pragmatic technocrats determined to create a better future for their people.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.