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In China, the game has changed

Playing host to the Olympics may be forcing new ways on the rigid regime.

June 15, 2008|Victor D. Cha | Victor D. Cha is director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and adjunct senior fellow at the Pacific Council for International Policy. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia."

Squinting through a haze of drizzle and dust, his normally starched white shirt wrinkled and muddied, he climbed unsteadily up a pile of broken concrete and twisted steel where a building once stood. Looking tired but determined, he shouted words of encouragement through a megaphone to rescue teams working below, and then climbed down to sit with grieving mothers, holding their hands and commiserating with them.

No, it wasn't President Bush after 9/11. It was Chinese President Hu Jintao touring the earthquake-stricken areas of southwestern China in what has become the worst natural disaster to hit the country in more than 30 years. The image of Hu stumbling across rubble to comfort survivors of the May 12 quake was hardly one we usually associate with China's emperor-like leaders, who remain distant and choreographed when in public. Yet it was a sign of how hosting the Summer Olympics may force Beijing to swallow more political change than it can digest.

Most China observers believe that the Games, which begin Aug. 8, will not change the country at all. The sight of human rights protesters disrupting the Olympic torch procession in San Francisco, London and Paris never seemed to bother Beijing's leaders. Many pundits think that the way China's state-run media reported these events offered a preview of what the government would do if something ugly were to happen during the Olympics: Cut from the live feed to pre-taped segments. Beat demonstrators into submission. Cut back to the live feed.

The Chinese game plan for the Olympics is simple: Host the Games well; win a lot of gold medals; marginalize protesters; display to the world China's greatness. About $40 billion worth of preparations and the construction of such iconic facilities as the "Bird's Nest" and the "Water Cube" are intended to show the world the fruits of three decades of modernization. For many Chinese, the Games are not about changing China but about the world accepting China as a great power.

Political change in China is unavoidable, however. Beijing's leaders face a Catch-22. The price for seeking the Olympic limelight to showcase China's greatness is increased exposure to pressures to change. If they ignore or dismiss these pressures, China will be seen as backward and parochial, which will spoil its coming-out party.

And so China has been forced to change, and nowhere is this more evident than in its policy toward Sudan, where Beijing's stance has undergone a quiet revolution. While the Sudanese government was allowing hundreds of thousand to die in Darfur in 2004, Hu stated that Chinese aid to Khartoum was "free of political conditionality." A trade ministry official was more blunt: "We import from every oil source we can." Since then, however, Hu successfully pressed Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir to accept a hybrid U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force to stop the bloodshed and quietly ended Sudan's preferred trade status in March 2007, effectively removing incentives for Chinese companies doing business in Sudan. Chinese officials, including a new special envoy for Darfur, have traveled to the region and made uncharacteristic stops at refugee camps and criticized the Sudanese government on Darfur. And China has contributed the first non-African forces to the peacekeeping effort.

Change is afoot in China's policy toward Myanmar as well. While recent headlines have trumpeted China's offer of humanitarian assistance to its southeast Asian neighbor after last month's devastating cyclone, the real story has been Beijing's political distancing from the regime.

Comfortable as a weapons and energy supplier to the generals who run the country, China sat with arms folded while the junta cracked down in September on thousands of monks peacefully demonstrating against the government's policies. But when Myanmar's democratic protests became another rallying cry for human rights activists and threatened to embarrass Beijing as the Olympics approached, the Chinese leaders changed direction. They dropped their long-standing opposition to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the regime, reduced arms sales to the junta and played an important role in getting U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari into Myanmar for a fact-finding mission.

Beijing's newfound flexibility in foreign policy, however, has not been matched by a new regard for Chinese human rights. In the run-up to the Summer Games, the regime has detained political dissidents, created black lists for security police and instituted travel controls on entry to Beijing. In Tibet, it has no qualms about crushing any signs of resistance to Chinese rule.

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