Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tibet, China, and the Olympics

The Chinese government isn't entirely bad. After all, over the past two decades they've orchestrated what is perhaps the greatest economic rise in history, lifting more people out of poverty more quickly than ever before. And it has certainly opened up quite a bit over this period as well. Both of these trends should be applauded and supported.

But unfortunately, not only do the ends not justify the means, but I believe that the overall tally of evils that the Chinese government commits greatly outweighs the benefits it provides. The environment in China is toxic. The government is corrupt, authoritarian, abusive of the peoples' basic freedoms, utterly indifferent to the evils of other countries when it suits their needs (more on this below), and it behaves like an immature paranoid petulant child on the world stage whenever there is any issue that affects its pride.

The upcoming Beijing Olympics I think epitomize this latter point. The Chinese government has made the Olympics a centerpiece of national pride more than any other host nation that I can recall. Good for them, and I actually wish them well for a great event.

But it is in this context that I watch what has been going on in Tibet. I think the government has exposed its Achilles heel. It is determined to show a new, open face to the world for the Olympics. And it is determined to orchestrate the Olympics to go flawlessly - and without a whiff of anything embarrassing.

Therein, I believe, lies the dilemma for the Chinese government, which I believe activists for the myriad causes that have complaints about the Chinese government would be wise to exploit. If they protest in any sort of visible way, China must either respond or not. If it responds with openness (as it has promised), then it "suffers" the embarrassment of the world seeing the protest. (Of course, any legitimate government should have no fear of visible dissent, but this is one reason why I believe that the government behaves like an immature child.) And if it responds with a clampdown - as it has done in Tibet over the past few weeks - it reveals its true colors as a brutal regime whose claim to legitimacy is so tenuous that it cannot suffer dissent. Either case would be a PR nightmare for the government, and thus a win for the activists. All they need to do is lie low and avoid being rounded up until the event.

One more thing about why I think the Chinese government needs to "grow up." The Chinese government demands to be treated with the respect on the world stage that is given to other major powers and is exceptionally thin skinned when it feels that respect is not forthcoming. But among other things, maturity means understanding that respect is something that must be earned. For example, China has had ample opportunity with North Korea and Sudan to demonstrate that it is worthy of great-nation status, and has all but abrogated any responsibility - despite it's unique position to do so - to help to reduce the unmitigated evil that these two countries inflict upon their populations; quite the contrary, it has been the primary support propping them up. In another example, China tries to have it both ways on the environment: demanding to be treated as a developing nation with regard to carbon emissions, even after surpassing the US. Mark Twain once said "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." The same is true for respect. I cannot respect a government that fails to earn that respect.

I've been to China. It is a wonderful country, it has tremendous potential to be a true leader on the world stage. And the government does deserve a lot of credit for the progress the country has made. But it is not enough - more change is needed if it is to truly become the great nation it aspires to be. The Chinese government has made the Olympics a defining moment for the country. I wonder if it will be all for show, or if it will truly become a defining moment.

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