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.