China is one of the greatest success stories of the past century. It is also one of the greatest tragedies. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are a vivid illustration of how far the country has come from what it was in the 1960s and '70s — and how badly it has diverged from its promising course of two decades ago.
Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, freedom and democracy were on the march around the world. One dictatorship after another came tumbling down under popular pressure, including Spain, the Philippines, Chile, and South Korea. Between 1974 and 1990, the number of democracies in the world doubled — a rise that continued in the 1990s.
It was reasonable to think that in due time, China would join the parade. It had already achieved a miraculous reversal from the chaos, famine and savage repression it endured under Mao Zedong. Thanks to major economic reforms and the loosening of state control over its citizens, the country underwent a massive transformation for the better.
Economists at the World Bank wrote in 2002, "China has seen the most spectacular reduction in poverty in world history." The government allowed citizens greater freedom to move about the country, travel abroad and start businesses. Local governments incorporated elements of democracy. Censorship eased, foreign movies and TV shows were allowed and a modest space opened for political dissent.
The nation was on the same path taken by other countries, which became freer and more democratic once they reached a certain level of wealth and prosperity.
"Either China will remain relatively poor and authoritarian, or it will become rich and pluralistic — and it seems to have chosen the latter path," wrote Henry Rowen, a scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, in 1996. He went so far as to predict a date when China would become a democracy: 2015.
Bad guess. Instead of reforming, the Beijing government has reverted: clamping down hard on opposition, censoring online and print media and subjecting its people to relentless surveillance.
For the past seven years, the human rights group Freedom House ranked China "the world's worst abuser of internet freedom." In his 2021 book, China's Leaders: From Mao to Now, George Washington University's David Shambaugh wrote, "Since coming to power (President) Xi Jinping has unleashed a sustained reign of repression and comprehensive controls on China not seen since the Maoist era."
Xi has also mounted a ferocious campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs (pronounced "we-gers") in the Xinjiang region, whom they see as a separatist threat. The offensive, says Freedom House, includes "the forced relocation of rural residents, the forced sterilization of Uighur women, the mass detention of Uighurs in 'political reeducation' centers, and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of others by the courts."
As many as two million Uyghurs have been imprisoned since 2017. A British human rights tribunal concluded that Beijing's policy amounts to genocide.
Hong Kong used to be an oasis of freedom. In 2020, though, China imposed a new "national security" law that drastically curtailed freedom of speech, press and assembly in the former British colony. Human rights activists have been locked up, and organizations that once took part in mass protests have closed down.
The Olympics were supposed to be a chance for the Beijing government to impress the world. But the games have brought attention to the very things that have made China a human rights pariah.
The United States, along with nine other countries, is refusing to send official representatives because of the "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard and Boston College, told me such scrutiny was "a price China was willing to pay. I don't think Xi Jinping cares."
Somehow China, unlike so many other countries, has managed to achieve prosperity without having to allow liberalization. One reason is that the rulers in Beijing learned from the Soviet Union and other dictatorships the dangers of relaxing their grip over political matters.
For the Chinese Communist Party, economic reform was a way to strengthen its dominant position. The paramount goal all along, says Hoover Institution scholar Michael Auslin, has been "to make the world safe for the party." So far, it has succeeded.
When China hosted the 2008 Summer Games, there were still grounds to believe it would soon evolve into a more civilized and humane country. The Olympics are back in Beijing, but that hope is gone.
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