The Chinese Communist Party holds a great advantage over Western leaders: it has a clear strategy, it is determined to carry it out, and in the absence of internal democracy, no one in China is able to oppose it. Consider the Beijing Olympics. In dealing with the Games, the West is divided, hesitant, and confused, at once enthralled by the Chinese and worried by their ambitions. Westerners are also demoralized, less certain of embodying universal values than during their struggle against the Soviet Union; they hesitate to appeal to the principles of democracy and human rights in order to oppose Chinese communists. China certainly appears to be less dangerous than the Soviet Union was; it is not motivated by a desire to conquer the world and does not attempt to spread its ideology beyond its frontiers. China is good business for Westerners, a reservoir of cheap manpower and profits. Finally, Chinese leaders have studied the ways of Western elites, including the media, and have become skillful in the arts of seduction, persuasion, and even corruption; most Western visitors to China leave their critical sensibilities at the border.
Chinese skill in the face of the West’s moral abdication explains how Beijing got the Olympic Games in exchange for vague and dishonored promises. For example, the Party promised complete freedom of the press during the Games and even afterward. Stunned journalists now discover that they cannot travel freely. But it is too late to complain—and did they really imagine for an instant that the Party would uphold its pledge? Chinese leaders know that Western journalists will not boycott the Olympics over so little: it would cost them more to leave than to stay. Western leaders and the International Olympic Committee are also caught in the trap. Recall that, after the Tibetan revolt, Nicolas Sarkozy (speaking for the European Union, over whose council he currently presides) had made his presence at the opening of the Games conditional upon Chinese negotiations with the Dalai Lama. The Party immediately agreed to pretend to negotiate, while threatening France with the cancellation of certain contracts for the purchase of nuclear plants. The response of the European Union was to surrender abjectly; no real negotiations ever took place.
The Chinese also know that Western indignation is always brief: the massive arrests, since the beginning of 2008, of Tibetan dissidents, democratic intellectuals, audacious journalists, and independent lawyers have provoked only modest waves of protest in the West, and these subside in a few days. After the earthquakes in the province of Sichuan, Europeans marveled at the sudden access of humanitarian organizations and the media to the affected regions, and talk was heard of the thawing of the dictatorship. Then, unsurprisingly, Chinese police imprisoned parents who dared to protest construction defects in the schools where their children had died—but we had already moved on. In a Beijing that is censored, patrolled by police, and emptied of many of its inhabitants, the Games should therefore bring China’s leaders what they hope for.
And what is it they hope for? Just what is the Chinese strategy? One can describe it in two simple words: revenge and power. Revenge, first of all, for the humiliation that the Chinese Empire has been subjected to, beginning with its semi-colonization by the West in the nineteenth century. By compelling Western dignitaries to attend Olympic Games so clearly controlled by the Party, the Party feels that it restores its honor. For the same reason, in international negotiations, whether the question is Iran, the Sudan, or the World Trade Organization, China is henceforth the Empire That Says No. China’s other motive is power, an ostentatious power declared by the gigantic Olympic monuments, which are intended less for the Chinese people than for the rest of the world. The staging of the 1936 Berlin Olympics seems puny by comparison. China may have won the Games even before they open.
Should we worry over the passivity of a West that has neither the will nor the capacity to influence Chinese strategy? Perhaps nothing is shocking about China’s legitimate wish to restore its honor and develop its economy. At the same time, the West is abdicating its principles and tolerating the suppression of a billion human beings’ rights simply because they are Chinese. This is a major intellectual retreat. Moreover, we might well be worried, not about Chinese economic development, but about growing military power in the hands of a communist clique. What will be the ultimate ambition of an armed Communist Party? No one knows, because despotic regimes are indecipherable.
There remains the unpredictable element characteristic of all totalitarian regimes: their surprises tend to arise from the inside. What will be going on in the minds of the Chinese, who will all be watching the Games on television? Will they be proud of their athletes—or indignant at the money spent on the Beijing monuments? Will they compare these with their own rural shacks, poor urban apartments, lamentable schools, and absent hospitals—or will the national celebration smother their growing resentment against Party leaders?
Traditionally, the Chinese are more individualistic than patriotic: do they really care if George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy come to bow before the Communist president? Everywhere in China, agitation is growing, rebellions are breaking out, and the Internet spreads the discontent. Precisely because their economic situation is improving, great numbers of Chinese take note of the growing gap between the regime’s privileged class and its lowly citizens. It is thus impossible to know or predict whether the Olympic Games will, like those of Berlin in 1936, consecrate the triumph of an ideology or, like those of Seoul in 1988, mark the sunset of a dictatorship. But Beijing is, after all, closer to Seoul than to Berlin.