The Chinese authorities’ anxiety that the Olympic Games will be a success reflects their need to find international confirmation of their general political and economic policies of the past 20 years. The games are perhaps more likely to provide confirmation of the opinion of those who said China was rash to bid for the Olympics.

The immediate results already include unanticipated political problems, such as the international campaign to disrupt the world tour of the Olympic flame in the cause of Tibetan rights. The current efforts of the government to stifle further human rights protests and publicity for dissenters, so as to control the projected image of their nation, through limits on journalists’ access to the Web, and restricting press and television access to the athletes and sites, is generating more critical coverage by international journalists than would have come from letting them have the Web and free run of the games.

The Chinese confront the Gorbachev problem. How do you liberalize an authoritarian system? Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt was first to clarify the reality with free-speaking at all levels about the falsehoods and hypocrisy that permeated the Soviet system. Thus step one was telling the truth. This was to prepare the way for structural reforms. China is not yet at step one.

Gorbachev’s intention was to make possible an open and law-abiding Communist Party that would respect the party’s own rules and the constitution of the Soviet Union — always nominally democratic, but with its democratic procedures corrupted from the start by its actual control by the party leadership. The Communist Party manipulated every important institution in the Soviet Union, as everyone understood. This was responsible for the cynicism and corruption that existed at every level of life in the Soviet Union.

But while Gorbachev’s glasnost made public the truths that everybody had already known, providing catharsis, events abruptly cut short Gorbachev’s plans for further, and decisive, change.

There was a coup by Gorbachev’s enemies in the party, seizing Gorbachev and his wife while on vacation in the Crimea. When the coup’s instigators moved to seize control in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, the popular president of the regional government — the Russian Soviet Republic — intervened personally to address the crowds and block the coup. This made Yeltsin effective leader of Soviet Russia, and within four months Yeltsin and the leaders of other Soviet republics dissolved the USSR. Yeltsin declared free markets and told other leaders and the people to take “as much freedom as you can.”

The unfortunate result was robber-capitalism and a chaotic semi-collapse of government, a period remembered in Russia today with unforgiving bitterness. This is what the Chinese Communist leadership today wants to avoid.

Since the brutally repressed mass demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the party has tried to appease the public with a rising living standard. This has produced a substantial and lively middle class as well as considerable profiteering and corruption.

The official slogan has been, “Enrich yourselves!” — which many have been able to do, but the vast majority have not. The dramatic prosperity of the coastal cities makes a sinister contrast with conditions of want and squalor in the distant interior of the country.

Something like a million students have been sent to study abroad since 1978, of which less than half have returned, although the percentage of those who do is rising. As Pankaj Mishra has written, China is a still-poor country “rushing headlong, under a nominally Communist regime, to embrace Western-style capitalism and consumerism,” which “imposes many psychological conflicts and tensions,” while creating “an unusually large number of babbits, plagiarists and hucksters.”

Considerable liberty is granted to the intellectual class, most of its members engaged in one way or another in debate over how to shape the country’s future (many of them employed in the official think-tanks or academic institutes). Recent political history from the time of the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square has left not only political and economic unrest, but deep moral questions unsettled.

Hence the tension that surrounds the regime’s gamble on staging the Olympic Games, and inviting the outside world to watch the desperately-hoped-for individual Chinese victories, as well as the collective success of the event itself. The rest of the world will observe China through international television and the eyes of the thousands of journalists who have come to see the games and to see China — but are not wanted to see too much.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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