The Washington Times
Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Beijing 2008? Holding the Olympics in China eight years hence would indeed complete a picture. After all, of the three premier totalitarian regimes of the modern era, collectively responsible for the murder of scores of millions of people and the enslavement and subjugation of perhaps half the world all in all, only China has yet to enjoy the singular propaganda opportunity of basking in the reflected glory of the Olympic games.
That seems like quite an omission. What would our great-great grandchildren think, and those of the Chinese leadership, if they are deprived of the opportunity to look back and see the spirit of athletic excellence shining through and ultimately trumping the will to power of those grim dictators of the Politburo and the People’s Liberation Army? Because that’s how the story is going to be told, in the unfortunate event that Beijing does get the Olympics in 2008.
At least that’s how people who can speak and write freely will tell it. Of course, the people of China do not have that freedom now, thanks to their rulers, who can propagate without challenge whatever fiction they think serves their interests. But are they and their successors really going to be able to suppress freedom in China indefinitely? Because that’s what it will take. The minute people can speak freely, the Beijing Olympics is going to be the story of the triumph of human endeavor against a backdrop of tyranny.
Not coincidentally, that’s the theme of the spy-plane story as told in the United States, where people can speak freely: the heroic struggle to land an aircraft crippled by a hot-dogging Chinese fighter pilot; the grace under pressure of an American crew subjected to confinement, interrogation and the threat of show trials by officials of the Chinese government; the steady stream of lies from Beijing.
With this incident, the Chinese government has done the United States a tremendous favor. It has been an excellent exercise in “values clarification.” Americans haven’t been paying much attention to China. Even inside the Beltway, when the subject of China comes up, it’s usually in the context of trade. Commerce is an area in which we and Beijing speak more or less the same language. When the subject is sneakers, we understand each other and get along rather well.
But there is a danger, namely, that we will extrapolate from the sweet reason of commercial transactions to other aspects of our relations with China, reaching the unwarranted conclusion that Beijing is reasonable in general. The sophisticated version of this thesis holds that the Chinese government has a high regard for nuance and subtlely, and that we must conduct ourselves accordingly. They send signals; we signal back. Everybody gets along.
When our plane made its emergency landing on Hainan island, however, an entirely different China stepped front and center. Behind the scenes, no doubt, all the usual signaling was going on. For a change, though, the signaling was accompanied by high-profile public posturing of an unmistakeable sort.
And it was, in a word, ridiculous. The Chinese version of events in the air was simply absurd. The demand for an apology was simply preposterous. Their detention of our people was simply outrageous. And Americans didn’t miss any of this.
Now, it’s true that China is evolving; it’s hardly the China of the Cultural Revolution any more. And it may be that a behind-the-scenes power struggle over who will succeed Jiang Zemin complicated Beijing’s ability to bring the matter to a swift conclusion. It may be that a more belligerent reaction from Washington would play into the hands of hard-liners. It may even be the case that nationalist public sentiment, which Beijing’s rulers have encouraged in order to legitimze their rule, was strong enough to bring genuine pressure on the government to take a harder line. And all of it may, in some sense, come back to Taiwan and China’s fears of the island’s independence. In sum, maybe they had to lie. Certainly, commentators invited us to consider these and other nuances.
But in the end, you couldn’t get around the fact that they were lying – the big, fat lies of dictators unaccountable to their own people, stupid and childish lies that are an insult to the intelligence of reasonable people. Our relations with Beijing may be complicated and multifaceted, and even properly so. But the rulers there have just put on a stunning display of who they are and how little they have in common with elected leaders worldwide who cherish the freedom of their people and accordingly feel obliged to speak the truth to them.
I am having difficulty recalling which of the following are genuine ancient Chinese proverbs: Revenge is a dish best served cold; be careful what you ask for, lest you get it; may you live in interesting times. Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Beijing 2008: So if the past is any guide, by about 2018, 10 years or so after its propaganda coup in hosting the Olympics, the Chinese government will have collapsed utterly, the grandiose lies of its dictators having been shattered once and for all. May their end come peacefully, at least for the rest of us.