The Olympic Leap


Los Angeles—The easy thought about the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing is that the earliest date for conflict involving the People’s Republic of China has now been put back to 2009. Perish such cynicism, but the biggest winner of the 2008 extravaganza will be world peace if the IOC decision in fact accelerates China’s modernization and presumed democratization.

Surely, the odds are even greater now that the PRC will probably continue to prioritize economic development (and the improvement of the capital city’s environment and infrastructure) over absolutely everything else. Anti-Western elements in China, particularly within the officer ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, will have to justify any proposed adventurism that might jeopardize the 2008 Games. At the moment, that will be a very hard sell in Beijing.

China is currently engaged in a titanic internal struggle to escape the suffocating clutches of its past without overtly repudiating its Communist inheritance. That’s not easy when the official visage of the Communist country’s founder, Mao Tse-tung, hangs so enormously at one end of Tiananmen Square.

Chairman Mao was two things to his people: first, the heroic George Washington of his country, expunging all foreigners and consolidating everything under Beijing’s wing except the offshore prize of Taiwan; and second, (less recognized internally), one huge, irrational drag on China’s domestic modernization and natural drift toward world economic integration.

So, Mao put China back together again, but, like Fidel Castro in Cuba, he stayed too long and China began to come unglued. In conceiving and insisting on such tragic domestic misadventures as the failed Great Leap Forward, which put the economy in reverse, and the utterly satanic Cultural Revolution, which killed many Chinese and halted all progress in China, he perpetuated, in effect, more misery and death on his fellow Chinese than did even the fierce Japanese, China’s hated neighbor, during World War II. But certain truths about China must be unsaid, especially in China.

The odds are greater now that China will continue to prioritize economic development and
improvement of Beijing’s
environment and infrastructure.

That long nightmare began to wane with the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping. Astute and pragmatic, Deng understood that Mao’s peculiar statecraft doomed China to further decades of servitude and lassitude as a teetering third-world economy with more than a billion mouths to feed. So he threw out the Little Red Book and replaced it with the Axiom of the Black and White Cat: “It doesn’t matter,” he would say, justifying the occasional obvious deviation from Communist economic orthodoxy, “if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse.” It will take the mature fullness of history for the late Deng (relentlessly clear-eyed and as practical as possible under the lumbering system) to be appreciated as the maker of modern China and for Mao to be seen as its fierce liberator. Period.

For it is today the bright hope of Dengism’s flexible economic legacy that fuels modern China, not the dark fearfulness of medieval Maoism. Pragmatism more so than Communism sits atop this vast country, seeking to keep in check a nationalism that could at any time flare up like a virus, reinfecting China with some dangerous mass political fever.

To date, Dengism with its phenomenally consistent high economic growth rates and increasing economic opportunities—albeit development that is mainly concentrated along the coastal and southern regions—is reshaping China by vastly reducing poverty in this heretofore nearly destitute goliath and opening up the economy to the outside world in ways that the xenophobic Mao would never have permitted. Imagine the Great Revolutionary tolerating the extended negotiations and substantive concessions that have been required of China by the West as part of the World Trade Organization’s acceptance process.

Yet, mettle from the Olympics award should serve to further stay the Maoist hand that could break through from the grave and plunge China back into darkness. The Games present the Chinese with a kind of huge national goal worthy of the great people of this sprawling country, and a new inspiration to enable them to get through the many difficult days ahead. The West often views China as if it were one tightly and seamlessly woven totalitarian tapestry. We are apt to think that Beijing can pull on a thread and yank anyone in line. In fact, more and more, China’s system of governance is moving away from that Orwellian vision and more in the direction of a one-party Mexico.

Over time, that’s in fact how China will probably evolve: into a more superficially democratic, all-encompassing one-party colossus. What beckons for China is a large-scale mainland version of what until recently prevailed as the unifying force of tiny offshore Taiwan: superficially democratic governance by one party, the KMT. It is only lately that this ruling-elite party has had any real opposition. That’s the way Beijing would like to keep things. But it won’t be easy in this revolutionary technological age of global interdependency. Indeed, this is how many informed Chinese on the mainland see their homeland developing over the next 10 to 20 years—like Taiwan.

The interim problem for the mainland, however, is how to get to there from here. It is one thing for the KMT to impose iron rule on a mere 22 million Taiwan islanders. Try doing that to 1.3 billion people and you have a whole different problem.

Deng sought to defuse the tensions of China’s huge population by appealing to people’s sense of survival and greed. He put the nation in a materialistic mood: “To get rich is glorious,” as he once put it. Materialism would substitute for the religion of Communism.

But recently some of the wind has gone out of the sails that have lifted China out of its doldrums. Hence the contemporary rise of Falun Gong . . . the religious cult that has millions so entranced and the central government so unnerved. More and more, China has become all cash and little ideological carry (that anyone really believes in). The recent crackdowns against dissidents and foreign scholars are hardly the hallmark of a confident, laid-back government.

With the 2008 Summer Olympics decision, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the outgoing IOC president, handed Beijing a wand with which to hold the country together for another half-dozen or so years. That will give China more time to evolve toward being a country more like today’s Taiwan than yesterday’s Mao. If the competition for the Olympic Games hadn’t existed, it would, from this perspective at least, have been useful to invent it.

Tom Plate is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. He is a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser,The South China Morning Post, and The Straits Times of Singapore. His column also appears weekly in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, The Japan Times in Tokyo, The Korea Times Los Angeles, and Korea Times Seoul.

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