All eyes on China

For at least two decades I’ve read conflicting arguments over the best approach to foreign relations with China. Will increased trade help bring about increased freedom for Chinese people, as they are exposed to Western ideas more and experience a taste of free choice at least in the area of buying and selling? Or is that just rewarding the authoritarian regime, allowing them improved status and power without their having to improve their record much if at all?

These questions have come up for a lot of discussion as the preparations for the Beijing Olympics have progressed. And they’re not any easier to answer. I know some people think it was a terrible mistake for the IOC to award the 2008 Summer games to Beijing. They think President Bush should boycott the games. Some of them will practice their own private boycott by not watching the games on TV.

I have little interest in watching the games themselves, but I’ve many times thought about whether or not it’s good to buy products made in China. Some products are made by slave labor, and others by people working in such awful conditions that it might as well be slave labor. Yet other companies in China provide decent working conditions, and offer new opportunities for prosperity, personal advancement, and contact with Western people and ideas, which bring many benefits to their workers and their families. Reducing trade with China would reduce both.

On the whole I’ve generally found the arguments in favor of increased trade more convincing. Increased contact with the West makes it harder for the Chinese government to keep their people from knowing what life is like in lands where people have political freedom (although the government still works very hard at restricting the flow of information). Increased prosperity allows more people to start their own businesses to better their own lives and the lives of their families.

The question of whether these Beijing Olympics will lead to greater freedom for China is the subject of a very interesting article, with answers by several experts on China – and they don’t all agree. At best, they see the possibility of modest gains, but certainly nothing dramatic. Some of them see more likelihood of at least a temporary increase in repression, due to the heavy increase in security put into place for the Games (including lots of state-of-the-art technology brought in for that purpose).

What does seem clear from their comments is that trying to detract from the glory China hopes to gain from hosting a successful Olympics will do no good. Ordinary Chinese people are proud of their country, proud of the progress they have made economically, and proud to take their place on the world stage. They find it hard to believe that Westerners who support protesters really care about human rights, and suspect they are just trying to keep China from achieving the glory it deserves.

One such person is Ma Yinjiang, an entrepreneur who represents the optimism of many Chinese people today. He was born into poverty and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, but a university education (once that became a possibility again) and a company he founded (selling soap dispensers and now other products to hotels) have brought him relative prosperity. He is proud of his country, and eager for the rest of the world to see how much China has changed.

So for Ma Yinjiang’s sake, I hope the Olympics go well. As Ross Terrill points out (in the first article linked to above), “a successful Olympics will be China’s glory more than the government’s. The government will sweat, repress, and spend billions. But the Chinese people will feel proud, and why shouldn’t they?” And perhaps the movement toward freedom – for which Ma Yinjiang protested along with other students in 1989 – will get another nudge.

2 Responses to All eyes on China

  1. The singular defining concept of human rights focused on the individual is being rewritten by China and though there may be many misgivings, the facts are that never in the history of civilization have so many 100,s of millions been lifted out of poverty and through products and commerce globalized with the rest of the world albeit without being able to actually converse in global english.
    Though none born in a democratic environment like me in India, would change places with the chinese, it m,ust be acknowledged that progress to any resident is “relative to their own past”. In that respect the chinese citizen is better off than any Indian as “their present is better than their past of a decade ago”. It is unfortunate but true that “economics controls human values and economic freedom is the first expressionn of democracy”. This has been taught by the developed democratic world which has embraced China because has lowered cost of goods and indirectly helped maintain the quality of life in the developed world.
    As far as democratic principles are concerned there is little point in “granting democratic rights BEFORE there is infrastructure and systems that can maintain order”. Democracy that is granted is worth nothing if it cannot be protected. The democratization of the Soviet Union on the basis of human rights led to chaos and the economic domination by crime. Criminals and mafia became the paradoxical government and provided their design of order.
    I asm sure that Chinese government is aware of the need for democratization and they must need an “emulation model”. Since they have not found it in the developed world where 80% of every percentage of growth is cornered by the same orwellian few who are “more fortunate than others”. I believe they have seen Singapore as microcosm and seek to emulate that in their own way because a billion equals are not that easy to manage.

  2. Pauline says:

    Interesting thoughts, uday.pasricha. I certainly would not want to see China go the way Russia has in recent years. Having a good economic basis is important. But how far do they need to get, economically, before loosening up somewhat the rigid control over the flow of information and expression of opinion about the government?

    Ten or twenty years ago it was hoped/expected in the West that as China continued to improve economically, there would be a gradual improvement in areas such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. From what I understand, the controls are not always strictly enforced (depending to a large extent on local authorities). But they can and do crack down severely when they choose to.

    I realize that their mindset is very different from that of the typical American. So it’s hard for us to understand either the attitude of the rulers there or the people as a whole. Americans are sometimes too quick to criticize their own country and its leaders, so it’s hard to understand a people who want to present such a positive image of their country rather than point out its faults publicly to help get them fixed.

    Amost all of what I know about China is written by Westerners, primarily Americans. I would be very interested in being able to get a Chinese view of the situation in their country – but not one specifically written with the purpose of promoting a certain “image” of their country

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