SCMP Friday, July 27, 2001

Olympics victory a symbol of China's great progress


After Beijing was awarded the honour of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics recently, the contrast in moods of the Chinese and the Americans was marked. While 70 per cent of Americans polled felt Beijing should not be the host, millions of Chinese were displaying their joy to the world in such storied places as Changan Avenue and Tiananmen Square.
Such starkly different reactions indicate several things, one of them concerns the wide gap in feelings that exists about China's human-rights record.
Indeed, in the West, no story about Beijing's hosting of the Olympics can be separated from the issue of human rights in China. The issue has in effect become a poignant symbol of the Beijing Olympics.
Beijing's supporters and sympathisers in the West maintain that holding the Olympics in China will contribute to the country's legal and social development and progress on human-rights matters. They point to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as having contributed greatly to South Korea's transformation into a full-fledged democracy.
Beijing's adversaries, however, argue just as forcefully that having the Games in Beijing will be nothing more than travesty, the 1936 Nazi-hosted Berlin Olympics all over again. Perhaps worst for all concerned would be a repeat of the highly politicised scenario of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the United States boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet, if the 2008 Beijing Olympics does symbolise something, it might in fact have little to do with the above. Why? Think of this basic fact: since 1989, China has simply defied all sorts of Western speculation - whether wishful thinking or dire predictions - calmly weathering the death of Deng Xiaoping and the resulting leadership succession, the peaceful and successful handover of Hong Kong, and the gradual readjustment of the Chinese Communist Party's authority and power. All this while achieving remarkable stability and rapid development.
As we watch the celebrations by Chinese people all over the world, it is high time we asked: is this all merely because these naive Chinese, whom to Western eyes seem to care little about human rights and democracy, are still being bamboozled by the mainland's authoritarian government? Or is this because a well-intentioned but unbalanced and ill-timed approach to human rights has prevented the West from understanding what is going on in China?
China has always been difficult to read. And the opinions of the Chinese themselves are much more diverse today. But it is simply undeniable that even among those Chinese who are not satisfied with their government and political system, many have difficulty appreciating much of the uproar in the West over human rights.
Criticism towards China has been off the mark for a long time. Critics in the West rely heavily upon the most vocal dissidents, who certainly have a grudge. But in their ceaseless negative crusades, these dissidents, no matter how strong their emotions or however justified their causes, create a great deal of resentment among their compatriots, whether inside China or among the huge community of overseas Chinese. To many Chinese, such dissidents selfishly detract from the overall progress being made on so many fronts in China: economically, politically and socially.
Even on such controversial issues as Tibet and Falun Gong, the majority on the mainland back the Chinese Government. Many Chinese have seen the videotape of the self-immolating Falun Gong members in Tiananmen Square recorded by Western journalists who "happened to be on the spot". The tape has not changed the view of many Chinese that Falun Gong comes across as a selfish and controlling cult.
To many Chinese, debate in the West over China's human-rights record is often carried out in inappropriate, extremely politicised forums, such as on the floor of the US Congress as part of the constant revisiting of most-favoured-nation trading status for China, or in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, or in the International Olympic Committee. Although pressure from these forums has sometimes earned freedom for well-known Chinese dissidents, in general these forums have been counter-productive. The biggest losers are actually the dissidents themselves, who as a group are widely perceived by other Chinese as betraying the interests of the nation for personal gain.
The incessant repetition of human-rights issues in various forums, despite China's huge strides in development, throws into doubt the motives of people putting forward such views. Increasingly, these tactics are seen as a means of discrediting and containing China.
Certainly, China is still facing numerous problems. Even according to its own professed standards, China actually deserves a lot of the criticism it receives from the West, particularly with regard to human rights. But the greatest story - between Beijing's defeat in 1993 by two votes in seeking to host the Olympics and its overwhelming victory in being awarded that role this year - is that China's development has been the most impressive in the world.
Xu Xiaobing is a student at Stanford Law School.