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Eye on the News

André Glucksmann
Olympic Crossroads
It’s time for Western democracies to put pressure on Beijing.
1 May 2008

The approaching Olympic games have highlighted the aboulia—the loss of will—that besets Western democracies. Incoherence reigns in confronting the power of former communists; diplomats have no idea whom they are dealing with, nor the experts what kind of regime they are discussing. The brutal repression of monks and civilians in Tibet shocks world opinion and accelerates our elites’ belly dance before the Chinese authorities. To go, or not to go? Many leaders now suddenly discover that their calendars are too busy for them to make it to the games’ solemn opening ceremony. Nevertheless, only a few leaders—Polish, Czech, Bulgarian—dare to announce outright that they will boycott this political display coronating a regime that flouts human rights. For the most part, hypocrisy is in the ascendant, and the lame excuses that proliferate in France do credit to no one. Faced with the choice of respecting either the Olympic torch or those assassinated and tortured in Lhasa, Parisians have made their decision, whatever the cost for regional or world diplomacy.

Since the fall of the Soviet empire and the opening of China to a market economy, foreign ministries are all at a loss. At one moment, they bet on everything going well at the end of history—that is, the end of the history of great conflicts and great challenges—and at the next, they fear a new cold war and don’t know where to turn. Yesterday, George W. Bush discerned the clear blue sky in the eyes of Vladimir Putin; today, presidential contender John McCain, no less “Republican,” sees only three sinister initials: KGB. Tony Blair anointed Putin even before he was elected; but more recently, after the radioactive assassination of the dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, he has left 10 Downing Street at extreme loggerheads with the Kremlin. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, publicly friendly with Putin, has sworn to me that he was more critical with him in private. A similar display of dilly-dallying is shaping up around a China that the West both courts and fears. The emerging third power of the world—with 1.3 billion inhabitants—exerts a power of fascination, for better or for worse.

The gigantic, even Pharaonic, public works that are transforming Beijing into an Olympic capital stun and overwhelm us. Three decades after burying the Marxist economic model, China is celebrating its amazing transformation. As in the cases of Japan and Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, the modernization and globalization of the country are advancing chaotically and at very high speed. The unprecedented rapidity of modern industrial and financial techniques, combined with the inhuman brutality characteristic of the great workshops of yesterday’s communism, produces an economic miracle, broadcast to the world.

While admiring the skyscrapers that rise up almost instantly, one forgets the millions of exhausted, emaciated peasants tasked with renovating the capital, where they rot until being sent away once the great work is done. “Pharaonic” describes not only the construction but the whole social structure of the world’s largest country. At the summit rules the collective Pharaoh, the Chinese Communist Party, whose leading clans settle their affairs sheltered from public scrutiny. At the bottom, there are a billion workers and peasants deprived of elementary rights, a population of modern serfs and slaves. Between the two lies a rapidly expanding middle class that benefits from a new and fragile prosperity and that tends, with a few admirable exceptions, more toward political docility than toward claiming fundamental “bourgeois” rights.

Modernization, yes; democratization, no! This is the guiding principle of the Chinese Pharaoh, established in 1989 by the bloody repression in Tiananmen Square, including the execution, torture, or deportation of thousands of students. This is the answer to every act of dissent, whether by foolhardy strikers, peasants in revolt, dissident intellectuals, careless Web surfers, or the monks of Tibet. China is no longer a totalitarian state in the Stalinist or Maoist sense of the term, but a postmodern, de-ideologized dictatorship: there are almost 10,000 executions per year, we are told—and families must reimburse the state for the cost of the bullets put in their loved ones’ heads. The elite no longer worships at the shrine of doctrinaire illusions; it prefers to seek riches and to hold on to power. It accepts the market and globalization without allowing the accountability, the checks on power, and the requirement of transparency characteristic of liberal democracies. Economic miracles do not automatically engender democratic miracles, nor do they provide a guarantee against a turn toward chauvinism and militarism. The examples of Japan and Germany between 1900 and 1940 are available to refresh the memories of forgetful diplomats. The great nation of China finds itself at a crossroads, and all the fawning is not helpful to it.

A half-century of communist catastrophes, both suffered and inflicted, has left the hard core in Beijing ultra-cynical, unscrupulous, insensitive to good or evil; they have little regard either for their countrymen’s freedom of expression or for the noble sentiments with which their Western interlocutors embellish their requests for better behavior. Enough, then, with false naivety; our necessary coexistence with the giant of Asia should be based neither on contempt nor on indulgent complacency. Postmodern dictatorships understand only the quid pro quo. There is no reason to grant this one the award of a world-historical opening ceremony in Beijing as long as Lhasa is suffering behind closed doors. Politicians: if there are no serious changes between now and then, boycott the very political opening of the Olympic games and find the courage, the lucidity, and the dignity to explain why! Proof that the Chinese leaders are not insensitive to pressure is that, faced with foreign protests, they have begun to change their vocabulary: whereas not long ago they were denouncing the plots of the Dalai Lama’s circle, now they are looking to receive its representatives. Is this merely a gesture to salve the bad conscience of diplomats? Or is it a first step?

André Glucksmann is a French philosopher and author of many books, including The Master Thinkers and Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy, coauthored with his son Raphaël. Translated by Ralph C. Hancock.

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