Sometimes we are fortunate in our mistakes.
It was a mistake to allow a cruel dictatorship to host the Olympics. China's rulers wanted to host the Olympics because they thought this would be a p.r. triumph. Instead the Olympics are turning into a p.r. disaster for the Communist autocrats. As the torch wends its way to Beijing, shouts of protest meet it at every turn. It's almost comical to listen to thugs in bureaucrats' clothing as they denounce the machinations of the "Dalai clique." That's the way Mao Zedong talked. That isn't what the "New China" is supposed to sound like at all -- that land of skyscrapers and 10 percent growth and a happy populace with no need for elections, so wise and benevolent are its "leaders."
There has been much talk of "politicizing" this Olympiad. Will a boycott politicize it? Will a walkout from the opening ceremony? Would politicizing be bad?
In fact, these Games were political from the start. The Chinese government wanted to present a certain idea of itself to the world, and there was no place in that idea for the sound of the state's pulverizing the individual. If you're a foreign businessman and you hear that sound, you feel a little uncomfortable sending your dollars. If you're a U.N. jet-setter and you hear that sound, you feel a little sleazy when Hu Jintao buys your drinks. To put the point generally: Illiberal regimes tend to find themselves isolated and mistrusted. It is in the interests of China's highly illiberal rulers to keep the world from focusing on their illiberalism.
What those rulers hadn't counted on was that the Tibetans would be so very unpatriotic as to require a crackdown just now, and that this would put the cries of the pulverized in so many ears. What we see in the international protests, and the calls for boycott, is the expression of the feeling that China is not a place we can call good. Its dungeons are full of prisoners, thousands upon thousands upon thousands, whose crime was to practice Falun Gong, to be a Roman Catholic, to report the news with honesty, to fly a Tibetan flag. What these activities have in common is the assumption: "There are realms the state may not enter. It may not tell me what to believe about the meaning of life. It may not tell me the things I can and cannot say. It may not, in short, offer dictation to my conscience." "Ah, but we can," replies the state. "Off to labor reform -- and kindly remember to turn in your organs!"
It is understandable that the first heads of state to announce their intention to boycott the opening ceremony -- those of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany -- all grew up under Communism. They have heard at close range the cries of the pulverized. President Bush, whom we know to care deeply about those cries, should follow his counterparts' example. It is understandable that he may wish not to announce his decision far in advance. (Among other things, it might create a perceived duty to escalate his form of protest should the Chinese crackdown grow worse.) But when the time comes, he should not attend.
What matters to us ultimately is that China becomes a different kind of country. Its rise to the rank of superpower is all but assured. If, having attained that station, it remains what it is now -- a violent, hectoring bully -- we'll all be in trouble. No one has a formula for getting it where we'd like it to be. The reform of its economic system through engagement was, and is, surely part of the answer. But engagement does not mean we must forever hold our tongue. In fact, the breadth and the depth of our ties to China -- and their strategic and commercial importance to both sides -- give us reason to doubt that a boycott of the opening ceremony would cause a permanent rift.
Let us consider ourselves lucky, then, that the IOC's mistake provided an opening to show China how it is seen, rather than an opportunity for Beijing to ratify its self-image. President Bush: Don't go.
By the editors of National Review Online
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online