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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Beijing Olympics: A successful Games would be good for the world, not just for China

August 4, 2008

As the start of the Beijing Olympics approaches, China is apparently
cleaning up its act. George Walden lived there during the Cultural
Revolution and has returned many times as a politician and a journalist.
George Walden
The Telegraph. (UK)
August 2, 2008

Fireworks illuminate the Olympic Village as a rehearsal for the
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony Photo: GETTY

"Take me to the Olympic stadium" I told a Beijing taxi driver on a
recent visit.

His accent suggested he was one of the tens of millions of mingong
(migrant workers) flooding the towns and, sure enough, we ended up,
not at the miraculous birds' nest confection designed (with Chinese
help) by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, but at the
Soviet-style Workers' Stadium, which will also host some events.

For me the building had gruesome memories: during the Cultural
Revolution this was where "black elements" (alleged anti-Maoists)
were "struggled" before their judges, the people.

All that foreigners like myself heard was the roar of the baying
masses, and all we saw were crudely mimeographed leaflets of soldiers
with their boots on some poor innocent's neck, or a disgraced Party
cadre held in the "jet plane" position while they drove him through
the streets to be shot.

My detour to the past seemed a poor augury for the Olympics and, with
days to go, the prospects appear shaky.

Unbreathable air, stepped-up arrests of dissidents, restrictions on
journalists, terrorist alerts, mournful echoes from Tibet ­ the
Beijing Games do not seem set to earn a gold medal, in spite of
today's news in The Telegraph that the air quality is adequate.

Most ominous are signs that the numbers set to make the journey East
could be disappointing, and that British newspapers are finding it
hard to secure advertising sponsors for Olympic features.

The greatest threat to the Games' success is the physical cloud over them.

It is ironic that, last Friday, a full eclipse of the sun was due in
Beijing; in normal summer conditions the Beijing sun is eclipsed most
days of the week.

Instead of radiant light, an ash-grey pall covers everything,
composed of factory effluent, the smoke of antiquated coal-power
stations, car exhaust, and the dust of building construction.

Plans to change the air in the capital recall certain grandiose
schemes under Mao Zedong, such as the elimination of sparrows for
eating wheat. As always in China, everything is on an awesome scale,
this time involving the relocation of entire factories.

Who knows, with luck they might pull it off, but if so, probably by
underhand means.

One rather obvious trick has been to allow factories to step up
production regardless of emissions, in return for a few weeks of
cleaner atmosphere.

During this period, Chinese athletes can attempt to reverse their
defeat in Athens against the Americans (32 gold medals against 36),
who will find the going tougher in the imperfect air.

But it isn't only the air the authorities want to change, it is the
capital itself. The transformation of Beijing into a huge Potemkin
village has been achieved partly by the accelerated destruction of
the hutongs (urban lanes) and of unsightly neighbourhoods peopled by
rag-tag hawkers and traders.

What cannot be knocked down and renovated overnight is disguised by
hurriedly erected screens, but any gain in idealised scenery is lost
by stories of individuals who stand in the way of the giant Olympic
machine to defend their homes, and are harassed, bullied or beaten to
shift them from its path.

Certainly, it looks as if everything will be ready on time, if only
because in authoritarian regimes failure is not permitted.

And unlike what is likely to happen in London, in Beijing there are
no worries about labour shortages or pay costs. Mingong can be
drafted in as required and housed in dormitories on the job and, with
pay rates of £18 a week, the budget for the Games is unlikely to be exceeded.

Meanwhile, Beijing is being cleaned up in another sense.

Despite all the assurances the regime has given, Amnesty
International reported this week that dissidents are being rounded up
for the duration, and the media do not look forward to reporting from
a modern capital where the internet will give prompt and efficient
service for information about the heroic achievements of the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP), but return a blank when "Tiananmen Square
1989" is entered.

It isn't just the urban scenery that has had to be changed, it is the people.

Sir Robert Hart, the famed director of maritime customs in China a
century and a half ago, wrote of them: "However friendly individuals
may have appeared or been, general intercourse has all along been
simply tolerated and never welcome."

I am sorry to say that, even during the many visits I have made to
post-Cultural Revolutionary China, that has been my experience, too.

Helpfulness and efficiency are far more prevalent than before, but
feeling welcome is something else, and the Chinese are wise enough to
realise there is a cultural problem where foreigners are concerned.
That is why they are schooling their citizens, not just to smarten
up, but to engage in polite and friendly behaviour towards visitors.
The artificiality of the procedure tells its own story.

Seen overall it is a discouraging picture, yet there is a flip side
to several of these stories.

When you read of some doughty individual protecting his humble home
against the authorities, or some corrupt entrepreneur backed by local
Party bosses, remember that until relatively recently, defiance of
that kind was unthinkable: he would have disappeared and been
executed without trial by a bullet in the back of the neck for which
his relatives would be made to pay.

Today, he has rights of a sort. Individual litigation in China
increased threefold between 1987 and 2003, and there are more than
twice as many judges.

Certainly, there are documented cases of increased pressures on
human-rights activists, and Amnesty International does a good job of
keeping tabs on abuses.

But perspective is all-important. Amnesty was set up in 1961. Some 40
million Chinese had just died of hunger and repression during Mao's
Great Leap Forward, and millions more were to perish in the Cultural
Revolution when I was there five years later. I do not recall
Amnesty, a leftish organisation at the time, speaking out
energetically against Mao's tyranny.

Now China has gone capitalist, there is greater vigilance, even
though the country's human rights record has hugely improved in
relative terms. Democracy activists can be illegally arrested and
brutally treated. In the totalitarian past, deviants from Maoist
orthodoxy were tortured and killed out of hand.

In 1967, I saw people being paraded in the streets on their way to
execution. Today, democrats can be arbitrarily detained and beaten.

The progress is relative, but the rate of advance is not entirely at
the whim of the Party. People talk, habits of freedom are contagious,
there are now hundreds of thousands of non-governmental organisations
in the country, and as their losing struggle to censor the internet
shows, you cannot run a market system without a wide exchange of information.

Monitoring the Communist Party's excesses is easier now that the
country is more open. The old paranoia lingers; the Party is afraid
of a flood of correspondents wrecking its Olympic showcase, yet it is
not unresponsive to criticism, and late last week, it withdrew its
clumsy restrictions on internet use by journalists.

As for a more friendly attitude towards foreigners by the Chinese in
the street, the only cure is increased personal contacts and a
dramatic increase in foreign travel. That at least is underway: in
the first quarter of 2007, 16 million Chinese travelled abroad.

The micro-management of the Games by an autocratic government is a
distasteful spectacle. If this were Hitler's 1936 Olympics, observing
the regime's problems, we might be tempted to think "the worse, the better".

But China is not fascist Germany. The only Chinese leader Hitler can
be compared with is Mao, whose tyranny killed 70 million people ­
twice as many as the Führer's Second World War. And Mao died 32 years ago.

Politically, there are three ways the Games could go. If they can be
sold to the Chinese themselves as a qualified success, they will
boost the CCP's legitimacy, which at present rests on the single leg
of economic progress. If they are a humiliating failure, they could
weaken the regime at a time when the global downturn threatens to
undermine its exports, and so (some argue) strengthen the forces for
democratic change.

And there, I believe, is the mantrap for the West. To me, it seems
far more likely that the government would blame failure on the
"anti-Chinese machinations" of foreigners and "unpatriotic" democracy
activists, and exploit a sense of grievance to drum up a
nationalistic mood to secure itself in power.

Humiliation could also make China less inclined to play the
global-market game at a time when its growth, its loans and its
investments are needed. The only winners would be the chauvinist
diehards in the regime who have yet to come to terms with the demise of Maoism.

Which China do we want? A modified Maoism, with a resentful,
alienated China shrinking back into its shell, with attitudes to the
world reminiscent of the 18th-century emperor Qianlong, whose
"decree" to George 111 announced: "My capital is the hub and centre
about which all quarters of the globe revolve … I do not forget the
lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by
intervening wastes of sea"?

Or a China out in the world, competing ferociously in economics,
trade and sport? Put like that, the question answers itself. Ideally,
of course, what we want is something different: an early and peaceful
transition to a stable democracy and a friction-free rise of China's
power in the world.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be on offer, though an Olympics
that did not sour relations with the West could be a step in the
right direction.

Finally, there is the human angle. Success would be a feather in the
cap of the Communist regime, and risk prolonging its power.

But there are the Chinese people to consider, too, and it would be
churlish, as well as politically short-sighted, to begrudge them
their moment of pride.

The greater the country's self-confidence, the more it will open up
-- and the sooner a more liberal China will emerge.

George Walden's book 'China: A Wolf In The World?' is published this
month by Gibson Square Books
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