It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) intention of announcing its country's emergence on the world stage will not come without several embarrassing hiccups. Long oppressed minority groups without doubt see the attention lavished on the mainland as an opportunity to galvanize opposition to long-overlooked violations of basic human rights. The reality is that much of the Western world has used periodic rhetoric to condemn Chinese human rights violations, while at the same time refusing to use the ultimate weapon, trade sanctions, to facilitate the change their empty words will never precipitate. The winds of change, however, appear to be extinguishing more than the Olympic torch.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has threatened to boycott the opening ceremonies if the crackdown in Tibet does not subside. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked the same of President Bush, and though he has maintained his intention to attend, he has also repeated his criticism of China's importation of oil from Sudan, effectively enabling an ethnic massacre in the western province of Darfur. Reporters are threatening to boycott the entire games on account of restrictions the CCP has applied to members of the media despite an earlier commitment to censorship-free coverage. For instance, Tiananmen Square, the site of a violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, is off limits for any on-site reporting.
I expect the athletes themselves to carry their political agendas to the games alongside their world-class skills. Through body art, t-shirts, and post-event interviews the participants can shed a light on the hypocrisy of a country that revels in freedom of the marketplace, but not its identical twin in the realm of civil liberties. While the CCP denies a place for politics in this global athletic competition, they have long played a definitive role in the international theater that transcends sports. For instance, Jesse Owens made a mockery of Adolph Hitler's racial supremacy rhetoric and policies in 1936, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos called attention to the plight of African-Americans in the United States in 1968 with their "Power to the People" salute. The US boycott of the 1980 Moscow affair, and the Soviet's reprise four years later in Los Angeles represented some of the final blows of the Cold War.
The reality is that change in China must come from within. The CCP harnesses the mechanisms of political control to perpetuate its power. The equation is that simple, but it's a losing battle, for people who enjoy liberty in one realm of their lives will eventually demand it in others. Despite its most desperate measures, censorship of the media will fall on its own sword in the Information Age. Try as they might, the Internet and its progeny simply offer too many tentacles for any government bureaucracy, no matter how large and pervasive, to nip the winning ideas of freedom and liberty in the bud in a global marketplace that spawns new appendages by the second.
Will China be brought to its knees this summer for its actions in Tibet and similar dissent in Xinjiang province? Moreover, might China be persuaded to end its relationship with the genocidal regime in Sudan, or at least demand a halt to the mindless killing associated with the government-sponsored janjaweed? How about the unconscionable crackdown against its own dissidents who dare to question the regime for its denial of basic human rights to its people since the modern country's inception? The answer to each of these questions is a qualified "no," I predict.
True, China must placate its international detractors to some degree, but we are speaking of an entrenched regime schooled in the Soviet model of command with an iron fist. Instead, China's coming out party will unravel from every corner, the implications of their human rights transgressions an international embarrassment. The slow, but steady path toward the realization of basic freedoms in the world's largest country will be realized not in Olympic-sized leaps and bounds, but baby steps that indicate, for once and for all, that the times indeed are a changin'.