Feature

The Olympics: China’s bid for acceptance

China's dazzling opening ceremony was more than entertainment; it also served to tout the country's economic might and to let the world know it shares "the moral aspirations" embodied by the Olympics.

The eyes of the world are on Beijing, said Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post, and Beijing has met the challenge. The 2008 Olympic Games began with what nearly everyone agreed was the most dazzling opening ceremony in Olympics history, featuring “fireworks, kites, ‘ancient soldiers’ marching in formation, modern dancers bending their bodies into impossible shapes, and multiple high-tech gizmos.” But nobody should think China’s purpose in this grand opener was merely to entertain. In fact, said the London Independent in an editorial, the communist giant was delivering an unmistakable message: We are “the major economic power of the 21st century,” China was saying—and we also share “the moral aspirations” that the Olympics embody.

Sadly, that’s a blatant falsehood, said John Nichols in The Nation. Beijing won the right to host the Olympics by promising far-reaching human-rights reforms. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction, cracking down on dissidents, expanding censorship of the Internet, tightening its grip on Tibet, and maintaining support for horrid regimes in Burma, Sudan, and elsewhere. Last week, Beijing even revoked the visa of a former Olympian who dared to speak out about China’s complicity in the genocide in Darfur. President Bush and other world leaders who attended the opening ceremonies offered token criticism of China’s human-rights record, but their very presence sent a louder signal: That it is acceptable to host the Olympics “in an atmosphere of repression and persecution.”

It’s easy to see China’s flaws when you put the country “under a microscope,” said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. But look at the bigger picture. Once a “vast prison camp” where authorities treated the entire population like slaves, China now affords a measure of personal freedom to its 1.3 billion citizens, including the right to “work and live where they choose.” And thanks to China’s economic liberalization over the past few decades, “no country in history has ever lifted so many people out of poverty.” Yes, China still has a long way to go, said The Wall Street Journal. But those who say we should have boycotted these Olympics, or used them to shame the Chinese, are naïve. China’s citizens are now mingling with thousands of foreigners; the more the West engages China, the greater are the chances that Western concepts of freedom and individual rights will infect its repressive political system. “We believe this is a bet worth making, though the run will be more distance than sprint.’’

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