China Goes for the Gold

By Cumings, Bruce | The Nation, August 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

China Goes for the Gold


Cumings, Bruce, The Nation


China finally won the right to hold the Olympic Games in its capital city, to the enormous pride of its people and to the dismay of many human rights campaigners who wanted to punish the Communist elite again for its continuing authoritarian hold on power. But the seven-year run-up to the 2008 games is more likely to unnerve the authoritarians themselves, as tremendous pressure is brought to bear on the regime to open more political space and to maintain its current moderate foreign policy--particularly regarding Taiwan--while fending off the highly unpredictable Bush Administration.

There is a historical basis for optimism regarding human rights. That is the International Olympic Committee's controversial decision to award the 1988 games to the Gen. Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship shortly after it crushed the Kwangju uprising, South Korea's Tiananmen Square. By early 1985 the Olympic prospect had energized opposition forces and pushed the Reagan Administration toward tempering its support of General Chun. The crunch came in June 1987, when Chun broke his pledge of a peaceful transfer of power, causing a massive popular mobilization in Seoul and other cities, which, with an important nudge from Washington, forced Chun to yield. The first presidential elections in sixteen years were held that December. Contrast the IOC's exceedingly close decision in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen to give the 2000 Olympics to Sydney instead of Beijing. There's little evidence that China's human rights record improved because of that choice.

The long lead time to 2008 should also encourage Beijing to continue its moderate stance toward Taiwan. A president committed to Taiwan's independence, Chen Shui-bian came to power in 2000, but so far he has shown little interest in pushing the island in that direction, and the Chinese leadership seems content with that. China's current calm about Taiwan derives from two things: the negative backwash after Beijing's provocative threats against the island in 1995 and 1996, and a stunning public opinion turnaround on the island. Recent polls show a movement away from independence and toward some form of association with the mainland, with 44 percent of Taiwan's public favoring a confederation and 15 percent going so far as to support Beijing's one-country, two-systems formula. All of this is being driven by Taiwan's deepening economic ties with the mainland, making a Hong Kong solution for the island all the more likely. In any case, time seems to have switched to Beijing's side on the Taiwan question.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds, making it the clear locus of dynamism in East Asia. Japan seems to be in recession again, and growth rates in Taiwan and South Korea are less than half what they were a year ago. China will post close to an 8 percent growth rate this year. Beijing appears finally to have dotted enough i's and crossed enough t's on its fifteen-year-old application to the World Trade Organization to merit admission in the eyes of the organization's American and European gatekeepers, who say that China will enter the WTO in early 2002, if not sooner.

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