Friday, June 13, 2008

Do You Hear the People Sing, on the Ruins of the Quake?

-What has the seismic catastrophe brought to China's popular politics?

By Thomas Huang

It is no surprise that China's premier, Wen Jiabao, won an overwhelming popularity with his reactions over the earthquake. Many argue that his lightning visits to the affected area were hardly just political stunts: the presence of a top official could readily help bypass the labyrinth of China's local bureaucracies and - arguably - expedite the relief efforts. Wen's idiosyncratic down-to-earth personal style, which he has kept since his debut in politics, also attracted much admiration from the many traumatized hearts and souls of the Chinese people, who believe that they have had enough of the bad luck of this year: snow storm, Tibetan unrests, torch-relay disruptions... "Grandpa Wen," as he is affectionately dubbed, appears to be the premier genuinely "of the people" and "for the people," if not yet elected by the people.

At the same time, unassuaged parents, whose only children were buried under the ruins of the collapsed schools, unleashed a storm of furor at the unscrupulous officials and contractors, whose suspected corruption and negligence were seen as responsible for the flawed construction work that would not even stand the first few seconds of the quake. Many of these accusations seem to be, unfortunately, well founded: official media in China quote various civil engineering experts questioning the quality of those school buildings, and preliminary investigations by Sichuan's provincial government also points to the same problems, the most conspicuous one being substandard materials used in construction.

All these led to a rage of China's germinating populism. To put this mood into context: since the early years of China's economic liberalization, for which the country's then-leader, Deng Xiaoping, explicitly encouraged "allowing part of the population to get wealthy before others," dissensions against the new rich and the old powerful started simmering among the less advantaged groups. The 1989 student movement for democracy and political freedom, which culminated at the Tian'anmen square and has been widely publicized in the West, was initially aimed at ending corruption in government and speculation on prices that were spawned by political privileges and nepotism. Despite the presence of internet- and media-censorship, popular criticism of corruption and calls for greater transparency in governance have only grown louder over the years; even the D-word - "democracy," once a taboo in China's public discussions, popped up in newspaper commentaries as remedies for problems in the country's governance. Meanwhile, marketization of media also prompted the former loudspeakers of the government to look for real eyeball-catching stories, which inevitably exposes the dark side of the society: poisonous foods, slave labor, sweatshops, unsafe coal mines...

The earthquake, thus, provided an opportunity for China's newly formed middle class, not only to show a humanitarian sympathy to their suffering compatriots, but also to demonstrate a heightened desire to hold the government accountable. An outburst of vox populi, echoed around every corner of China's internet message boards and blogs, emphatically asks: why is it mostly the schools, not the luxurious government office buildings nearby, that failed to hold up in the disaster? In the name of the people, this inquisition unambiguously points the sword toward the new "red elites" who ignored the safety issues of school buildings.

Populism is generally considered a vicious flow in stable democracies as it works in favor of ambitious demagogues - at best to fool the electorate and at worse to derail the system; but for China, the story is slightly different. For almost two decades, the Chinese public have been widely criticized, by both domestic scholars and international observers, for being obsessed with economic gains. But the tide started to turn in the years before the earthquake: the bloody stories about the life of the poor trembling in the shadows of the cities' mushrooming skyscrapers and the dirty tricks of big businesses colluding with government officials to infringe upon property owners' rights, disseminated online or by traditional media, served as a wake-up call for the civic conscience of the urban middle class, who have been vocal players in the various types of Weiquan (rights protection) movements, including the one in Xiamen earlier this year that ousted the government-approved construction of a chemical plant from the city. As a result, government officials, though grudgingly, are getting used to having to come up with some sort of responses - however dodgy they may be - to popular demands and criticisms.

Therefore, the biggest credit for China's recent progress towards political liberalization should go to its lower and middle class, who are gradually reclaiming Mencius's idea of "People First, Ruler Second"; and the earthquake, despite giving a boost to the government's popularity, simply empowers the public with the moral vantage point to question the rulers.

Nevertheless, one should not be too optimistic about the Chinese public's zeal in politics: another byproduct of this process, nationalism, has more complicated effects on the political progress there. Next up: United We Stand: But Who's "We?"
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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Lee Wen Ho, Chinese and China: Another Inconvenient Truth

- Campaigns in Iowa are heating up. (I am getting numerous phone-calls every day from "Iowans for XXX.") But what about all the fuzz on trade and China?

By Thomas Huang

I still remember the summer of 1999, when newspapers, cable networks and websites in China filled their headlines with stories about the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by the US-led NATO forces and images of frenzied students protesting the atrocities of “American Imperialists.” Six months later came the case of Dr. LEE Wen Ho, a Taiwan-born Chinese American wrongfully accused of spying for Beijing.

At that time, these events were beyond what my seventh-grade mind could possibly interpret. Eight years later, when I had a chance to revisit Dr. Lee’s story, I was struck by the tribulations that still traumatize many newcomers who embark on their journey to the New World with unwithered American dreams. Dr. Lee’s case is another inconvenient truth, not only for the then-Secretary of Energy, Mr. Bill Richardson, but also for the many native-born citizens in this country who forget how their own ancestors came here as immigrants.

Yet beneath the turbulence of ethnic politics, a greater problem is that, as long as the two countries, China (Mainland) the United States, cannot comfortably trust each other, mistrust toward the first-generation Chinese Americans, especially those who work with politically sensitive, state-of-arts technologies like Dr. Lee, will persist in every corner of the social and political paradigm. Similarly, the several E-Coli-contaminated food recalls this year by American companies from domestic markets certainly cannot compete with the similar incidents on Chinese cat-foods in terms of publicity and degree of politicization. Most media news sources will keep on telling the fairy tale that, when there is no more import from China (tomorrow, maybe Vietnam and Thailand as well), the prince and the princess can live happily ever after.

At the Democratic debate in Chicago, candidates refused to clarify whether China is a friend or adversary but agreed to call China a “strategic competitor.” It is not entirely obvious what the euphemism is alluding to, yet one thing is clear: as China exuberantly marches towards industrialization and modernization, fear toward this export juggernaut will not evaporate any time soon. But pointing fingers at China does not teach one how to make structural adjustments or how to take care of the poor in an age of globalized economy without shutting down trade: China is also bogged in its own income-gap problems. American people and their leaders must call on their own wisdom to sort out the mess in domestic distributive justice. But, so far, aside from stereotypical fanfares condemning the great evil of corporate America, few politicians have elucidated the practical economics of trade and taught hard-working Americans how to take advantage of globalization instead of being taken advantage of.

In fact, a more rational voice on trade will fit comfortably into Democrats’ agenda along with other proposals on healthcare, education and green energy. A successful healthcare reform that enables American workers to switch jobs easily without losing healthcare coverage will greatly reduce anxiety in the midst of a structural adjustment. By improving the education system, America will have an even more competitive workforce that can quickly adapt to the demands of the market. By developing renewable or alternative energies, America will not only be able to reduce its reliance on Middle-Eastern oil, but also foster a whole new industry that creates jobs, exports and revenue. Meanwhile, raising import standards and the level of inspection for imported goods would not only ensure that American consumers, especially lower-income families, obtain cheap and safe commodities, but also push producers abroad to adopt better practices in manufacturing. This list goes on and on, but no one in this campaign has even started telling the other side of the story.

Therefore, Dr. Lee Wen Ho’s story is still not the most inconvenient truth for the xenophobes. The more troubling story is that, as the wind of populism blows, many citizens are too easily driven by the campaign rhetoric while shying away from trying to think in a rational way.

Also published in SandB.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

228: Please, leave me alone!

- The so-called proponents of democracy on Taiwan are pushing for a law that would push the idea of "transitional justice" to an extreme.

The DPP in congress is proposing a law to liquidate the human rights infringements incurred under the KMT authoritarian rule. The law demands punishment to those who participated in the 228 incident, a massive political suppression under the KMT's reign, and compensation to the victims or their descendants. Even more frightening is the provision that stipulates an "inherited liability," i.e. if the person found liable of human rights infringement has deceased, his/her offspring and relatives can be pursued for compensation.

It would not be surprising if the radical populists would cheer it as a move toward justice. Yet how much good does a late justice do to a society, compared to the damage it causes by stirring up the bitter memory that is already fading from public life, not to mention that the reality of the 228 incident is far more complicated than the populists portray?

If the KMT were to continue defending its past authoritarian rule (like the right-wing politicians in Japan defend the country's invasion of China and Korea), the greens would be more than justified to demand a clear answer from the KMT. But that is not the case. Not only had the KMT opened up for freedom and democracy and admitted its own past wrongs, but it has also actively participated in the democratic process without the slightest intention to restore authoritarian rule through an electoral victory. The greens cannot find evidence to incriminate the present-day KMT of being anti-democratic, and the only thing they can do is to dig into the past.

The truth is, Taiwan does not need another bloody internal fight to move on, and it should choose forgiveness instead of vengeance as the way toward justice. "Transitional justice," an idea that camouflaged hatred and desire for revenge with a distorted version of the "rule of law," only makes sense when there is a pressing necessity to give the suppressors a lesson in order to prevent a revival of authoritarianism - which is clearly not the case of Taiwan. Thus, when Taiwan is struggling to depart from its authoritarian past, passing a retroactive law and extending its jurisdiction to people who are not even involved in the incident not only constitute a gross violation of the principle of the "rule of law," but also incur an act that further hinders progress toward a mature democracy.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Taiwan's Bid for UN: In Ballot We Trust

-Does the pursuit of democracy justify electoral stunts?

By Thomas Huang

The Taiwanese is probably the last nation in the world that would burn a US flag. Yet they did, last week in Kao-Hsiung, the second largest city on the island. Although circa a dozen of flag-burners are far from constituting a fair representation of all Taiwanese, discontent against America certainly growled when Taiwan's bid for UN membership ran into a merciless blow from the US. As Taiwan's slogan for its UN campaign cried, "A vital life should not be limited, a democratic nation not isolated," enthusiasts of freedom and democracy simply cannot comprehend why America, the most prominent democracy in the world, will side with the repressive regime in Beijing in blocking the democratic aspiration of the people on the island. It is, then, tempting to think the islanders' struggle as a crusade against the oppressors in Beijing, and the elites in Washington who are dominated by the interest of Corporate America.

If only things can be that simple. Surely, the current arrangement of Chinese representation in major international organizations severely limits Taiwan's room of activity: Taiwan's public health experts, for example, cannot participate in WHO meetings without approval from Beijing. When Taiwan do have independent representation, e.g. in International Olympic Committee, it bears an awkward name like "Chinese Taipei." Ironically, another "land of the free" in China, Hong Kong, dances around the globe proudly with its own name, not even bothering to mention its status as a "Special Administrative Region" of China most of the time.

There is little doubt that Taiwan deserves something better: greater international visibility, more room for active involvement in world affairs, etc, etc. Yet the timing of such a campaign casts on it a dubious appearance. Of course, Taiwan has always endeavored to return to the UN since the 1990s. The DPP government continued that tradition, yet none of its previous strives was as vociferous. Now, with a congressional election coming up in four months and a presidential one six months ahead, and with an ambition that eviscerates the peril, the much-troubled DPP government surely needs to "do something." KMT has a similar move that features a similar referendum proposal, highlighting "a flexible strategy to return to the UN" with the help of the historical legacy of the ROC; but without all the executive resources that the DPP has, KMT's proposal appears to be little more than an hollow call to win the middle-of-the-road voters.

On the surface, it sounds risky to dismiss the blood, sweat and tear that Taiwanese, especially DPP supporters, have poured into the campaign as merely an electoral stunt, given the argument of "democratic self-determination" and Taiwan's de-facto independence. But before getting turned on at these ingratiating ideas, one still has to face the bitter fact that Taiwan's fate is still all up in the air. At this point, it is equally reckless to cross out the option of eventual reunification (of course, the precondition would be PRC's liberalization) as it is to exclude the idea of independence, not to mention the many other options that human ingenuity can come up with. UN membership comes after that bigger question, i.e. "independence or reunification, or maybe something else," has been answered. If one day the pro-independence Taiwanese somehow miraculously talked the PRC leaders into accepting a formal departure of Taiwan, official diplomatic ties with other countries and UN/WHO membership would immediately be at Taiwan's disposal. Thus, it is utterly illusive to view the UN membership as a confirmation of independence without earning the independence at first. No wonder, even the "Godfather of Taiwan Independence," former President Lee Teng-hui, cannot help but denounce the DPP's campaign as an electoral "scam."

Democracy does not justify bad policies - some scholars, like Bryan Caplan, even argue that popular democracies have an inherent propensity to generate bad policies. What Taiwan needs is not constant inflammation of nationalistic sentiments, but concrete efforts to stabilize its democracy and revive its economy. Similarly, while doing everything to keep Taiwan in track is important, it may also make more sense for Mainland China to focus on domestic issues such as corruption and quality control. The old Confucian teaching seems to apply here: "The best way to appease outsiders: to refine yourself."

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Chinese Having a Problem with "Made in China"

by Thomas Huang

"Made in China" is in trouble. From tainted foods to toxic toys, the biggest markets of China's hundreds-of-billion-dollar exports are getting angry with the once-tempting bargains. Yet the most vehement critics of Chinese-made products are perhaps not the "poisoned" Americans, but Chinese themselves.

Senator Hilary Clinton's exuberant yelling at the Democratic debate no doubt resonates with the thoughts of many bothered Americans: "I don't want to eat bad food from China ... or have my children having toys that are going to get them sick!" Of course, Hillary craves for union votes more than anyone else, and at this point, there is really nothing more important than exculpating herself from pro-corporate-interest charges that her rivals (especially Mr. Edwards) had dubbed on her. For that purpose, China, the nemesis of American manufacturing industry, is just a perfect target to pour the blame on.

The criticism to Chinese goods by Senator Clinton and other Democrats comes at a time when the problems of China's products are getting increasingly publicized under international spotlights. Yet all these come late. Defective and counterfeit products proliferated as China transformed from Mao's centrally planned economy to a market-, profit-oriented one. While quality standards of China-made products are raised as the Chinese manufacturers grow more experienced, the problem of lacking effective regulation persisted. In 2003, China's official media, CCTV, launched a weekly news report on consumer goods safety. The Chinese public was shocked at the scary images of nasty scenes in illegal food workshops and contaminated (possibly biohazardous) cotton in apparels and toys, starting to worry if the dishes they just had for dinner are doing anything bad for their health. As a result, similar news investigations flourished on TV channels across the country to meet the curiosity of the populace;
earlier this year, in a quest for ratings, a reporter from Beijing even faked a story of "Baozi (a stuffed steamed-bread) made from cardboard-boxes."

So Chinese have this complaint of defective products way before the problem catches the attention of international buyers. Ironically, the reason, at least partly, is that the exported products from China are already way better than the ones sold in domestic markets, because importers from abroad typically care more about quality control than Chinese domestic retailers. Some manufacturers in China even advertise their products as "export grade" to proclaim quality excellence even when they sell them within the country. Still, lower standards in general hurt consumers' faith in the products both in and out of the country. The Chinese complaints were highlighted in the public's responses to a news article of China's official news agency, in which the journalist questioned the Western criticism to Made-in-China products as politically-driven plots, citing statistics from the Japanese government's import inspection agency to demonstrate that exported foods from America are no better, if not worse, than the ones from China in terms of safety-standard violations rate. The points in the article are not totally untenable, but, contrary to the expectation that the Chinese would unite behind their nationalistic pride and say no to foreign critics, responses in the commentary systems of major news websites almost unanimously denounced the article
as self-deceptive lies, supporting the outside critics that resonate with their long-time dissatisfactions.

It is hopeless to count on governments alone to crack down on irresponsibly made products. But there are things that government can do. Tougher measures on importer- and retailer-liabilities may help put a brake on the race-to-the-bottom-price that comes at the expense of ignoring safety, even if that means taking a few more nickels from the shoppers' wallets. One thing that the policy-makers must understand is that the foreign importers have much larger bargaining power than their Chinese counterparts thanks to the formers' larger orders. Governments cannot monitor every single order; companies can.

Nonetheless, contrary to the description in protectionist fairy tales about "the prince and princess lived happily ever after without cheap Chinese goods," the developed world may have a hard time paying for low-tech consumer products, had there no deals with countries like China (both the PRC and ROC), Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, which are all more or less subject to similar blames. China taking the most is simply a reflection of its lion's share in manufacturing the goods in the first place. Now the problem is just how to make them safe to touch, to feel, and perhaps, to lick.

*Note: Unless specified, "China" refers to the territories and government of the People's Republic of China, not the Republic of China on Taiwan.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why "Status-Quo?"

By Thomas Huang

Early Latin speakers probably did not realize how this phrase has become the ultimate magic spell on every question related to cross-Taiwan Strait relations today: the "status-quo."

It is indeed a peculiar phrase with peculiar meanings. Generally, it refers to the semi-civil-war-like relationship between the two sides of the Strait. On the Mainland, Beijing vigorously contends its sovereignty over Taiwan, the last stronghold of the Republic of China (the government that the PRC claims to have taken the place of), and vows to crush the regime on Taiwan by force if the latter declares outright independence. On the other side of the water, a young democracy is wending its way through the jungle of the ROC's old constitutional framework that still claims the legitimacy to rule the vast Mainland Territory, which encompasses the PRC and Outer Mongolia. For whatever reason, despite the political cataclysm that had occurred on the island, an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese residents favor such ambiguous, up-in-the-air state of cross-strait relations in all of the opinion polls during the last decade. People's logics are simple: if we can remain independent without declaring it, why bother. Plus, it is not all that bad - cross-strait commerce goes on as usual, and more non-stop direct flights are becoming available.

Yet politicians think differently about the messy "status-quo." Washington wants to keep it because it decides that it is best to offend neither side across the Strait.
Beijing barely tolerates it as the "less evil" compared to an American intervention in favor of Taiwan. Taiwanese Greens want to fight it, because they fear that maintenance of "status-quo" will enable the PRC to grow strong enough and eventually take over Taiwan, while tying up Taiwan's hands so that it cannot adjust its position to defend itself. For Blues, they simply use it as a shield against the nativistic challenges from the Greens, striving to defend the last bit of space for the legacy of the Republic of China.

Despite the confusions, growls and quarrels, status-quo is perhaps still the more plausible choice for all sides, whether they like it or not.
Things do get tricky when neither the definition nor the consequence of such "maintenance" approach is clear, and the Greens (and potentially one day Blues also) are certainly well justified to worry about the potential of a PRC invasion. Yet things can have a more positive outlook.

For a long time, tensions across the strait have remained a matter of pride and prejudice. No one wants to appear self-defeating, as the various versions of nationalistic prides make it hard for any side to bend on the "matters of principle" (原則問題). Meanwhile, protracted hostility has paralyzed people's willingness to learn, to understand and to think from others' perspectives. As a result,
in cross-strait politics today, irrationality proliferates when prejudice prevails. Many hypochondriac reactions of Beijing, like the one over the proposal of "Second Republic Constitution" in Taiwan earlier this year, could have been avoided if Beijing is willing to abandon its condescending manner of studying Taiwanese popular opinion so that it can hear the voice of a broader Taiwanese public. PRC "patriots" will probably find the Greens not as evil as they think, either, once they start engaging in dialog with the "traitors" in their eyes. Similarly, the green supporters on Taiwan may also find their perception of the Communist Mainland as a monolithic Juggernaut too much of an overkill, once they embark on an Odyssey to discover the Mainland China they do not know.

However, understanding is always easier said than done, and it will not be an overnight project to rebuild trust between the long separated. Yet a relatively stable political atmosphere is the foremost prerequisite to breaking the ice of misunderstanding. Surely, "status-quo" sets limit to Taiwan's can's and cannot's, but it curbs the Mainland in the same way it disciplines Taiwan. Fear over Taiwan's potentially perilous position in the long run is not unfounded but based on a hardly convincing argument which assumes that "the PRC will never change" - an assertion even the conservatives around me have no faith in. In fact, China is more likely to change in the direction Taiwan wants - more peaceful and tolerant, if Beijing's leaders are shown more about the virtuous side of Taiwan's democratization instead of being reminded all the time that the DPP is a pro-independence party.

With political wisdom, it is entirely possible and worth trying for Taiwan to take advantage of the "status-quo" policy, instead of lamenting about the unjust and unfair treatment it suffers; undue complaints and defiances help nobody but the ultra-nationalists on the Mainland.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beijing 2008: More Than Just Olympics

-With Olympics in one year, is China ready to face the challenges from both inside and outside the Games?

by Thomas Huang

August 8th, Beijing. Nightly fireworks, excited crowds, tireless performers, and of course, loud and uplifting speeches by the country's leaders ... a grand celebration on the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the political heart of China, marked the one-year count down to the 2008 Olympic Games. With new stadiums mushrooming around the city, Beijing is making a sound proclamation of its readiness for the Olympics, a sports carnival that many Chinese have only waited for too long.

For the past six years since the city won the right to stage the 2008 Olympics, preparations for Olympics have catalyzed the making of a brand new Beijing on top of the old dragon-seat of China. Besides unveiling new sports facilities, Beijing is also in a rush to upgrade its grossly outdated infrastructures and teach its residents English and etiquettes. All of these, of course, are backed by the lavish spending of the Chinese central government, wh0se leaders are determined to make the Games "the most successful ones" at all cost.

The open secret is that the Chinese enthusiasm for Olympics has a deeper motive driving in behind: a lust for the aura of international acceptance that the right to host the Games entails. Clearly, a rising China is yearning for the kind of international prestige that matches its economic power. As the most celebrated international sports event that chimes with the lullaby of a harmonic human race, Olympics are just perfect for that purpose, especially since Chinese leaders have repeatedly asserted that the country shall have a "peaceful rise."

China is not alone in capitalizing on the political assets of Olympic Games. Despite popular calls for a separation of sports and politics, Olympics have only grown increasingly politicized over the years. Top leaders of the countries bidding to host the Games become foot soldiers in the campaign work, and decisions that the International Olympic Committee makes on the winners of the bids never fail to attract speculations over their political implications. The recent victory of Sochi's bid for 2014 Winter Olympics, for example, is often viewed as the triumph of an economically and politically rejuvenated Russia seeking to reinstate its position as a world's superpower.

Yet, to China, more politics in Olympics can be both a blessing and a blow. The country benefited from its political potency in winning the bid, and will continue to rally support both domestically and from abroad thanks to the Games. However, there is always a flip side of the coin. When China is placed in the spotlight of international attention, the country's inherent problems, most notably its records on human rights and civil freedom, become the source of squabbles. The country has long been criticized for its brutal suppression of press and religious freedom, ubiquitous internet censorship, and the lack of protection of workers' rights. To many human rights activists, the stark contrast between the spirit of Olympics and the human rights situation in China is simply an irony to the Games. Radical free-Tibet groups called for a boycott of Beijing Olympics; so did US presidential candidate, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. French presidential candidate, Ms. Royal also came down tough on the issue (or, she tried to make it an issue), but she lost anyway. Although, in the name of Olympics, the Chinese government announced at the end of 2006 a policy that eased restrictions on foreign journalists' activities in China, it also set a twenty-one-month lifespan to the new policy, making outside critics doubtful of the government's sincerity in the matter.

China's trouble with critics over the Games is only part of its "growing pains." With industries booming, environmental pollution has always been a headache; and now it gets even trickier as Global Warming kicks in. China's proud economic powerhouse, the export-oriented industries, suffered a hard blow when recent news reports highlighted safety problems of the country's exported products. Besides that, the PRC's strengthening People's Liberation Army is also stirring up concerns, particularly in Pentagon, where many are afraid that the tipping military balance across the Taiwan Strait may lure Beijing into attempts of an armed unification with Taiwan.

Nonetheless, to the Western world, China is not always a counterproductive adversary. The country is still a trading partner, or maybe also a "strategic competitor," as American Democrats agreed on August 7th's debate, and the wind is unlikely to change in the near future. Chinese leaders have been fairly helpful and cooperative on a number of international issues like dealing with North Korea's nuclear attempts, and the country's increased involvement in UN peace-keeping operations is also much applauded. Many who work in trade and business with China believe that intensified commercial activities will eventually lead to an open society, since modern international economy is based on the flow of capital, goods, service, and most importantly, information. Supporters of China's bid for Olympic share similar beliefs. Former Chair of the House International Relations committee's Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr. Jim Leach (R-IA), is one of them. He said to the writer of this article in an interview last year that he endorsed Beijing for Olympics because he viewed it as a positive signal that China is welcoming the people of the world to visit and to compete "in fair and open competitions" and "in a totally rule based way."

Behind the disputes over what to do with Beijing Olympics, i.e. to boycott or to participate, given the country's human rights records, the bigger question is essentially an ideological one over the choice in foreign policy-making: which strategy shall we prefer, "containment" or "engagement?"

In public rallies, tough tones whip up the crowds' sentiments. Containment, the tougher approach, is thus always a good choice for policy advertisement. Yet history tells how the strategy worked otherwise. Vietnam War did not crush Viet Cong; isolation failed to shake Cuba; for China, while hostility in the mid-20th century had not move the country any closer to freedom, Nixon's ice-breaking diplomacy opened a new era of China, freer and more open than it had ever been - although still yet to be free enough.

Olympics provide a chance for the outsiders who want to get their voice heard by China, and that is precisely why politicians and human rights activists are trying to take advantage of the event. Yet because of that, Olympics can also an opportunity for China to make some real progress, not only in infrastructure but also in its citizens' rights and freedom, and show it to the world. China's temporary ease on press freedom for foreign journalists for the sake of Olympics may seem half-hearted, yet it is moving in the right direction. The Chinese government may be reluctant to come down harsh on Sudan over Darfur because of oil interests (similarly, Ms. Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], current House speaker, speaks rather gently on human rights issues when it comes to Saudi Arabia), but after international pressure stepped up, China altered its non-interventionist policy and agreed to persuade the Sudanese government into accepting the UN resolution and allowing peacekeeping forces, as long as no sanction against Sudan is proposed.

Making China care more about its image in the world is perhaps the most important way in which Olympics has shaped the regime. To get the Olympic thing running, China needs inputs from the world, and this also makes it easier for the world to communicate with this country that once shielded behind its nationalistic pride. In contrast, confrontational approaches, such as a boycott, serve none of th0se purposes, as they only appear as a cold denial to every tiny bit of things China has done in making itself a more welcomed member of the international community. Just like scolding and beating are not the best ways to discipline a child, iconoclastic attacks, despite the possibly kind-hearted intention in behind, typically hurt more than help the progress.

Some popular notions nowadays compare the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, accusing both for embellishing suppressive regimes; yet the reality of the present-day China makes such claims hardly tenable. For one thing, China's leaders do not want to demonstrate with Olympics any kind of racial superiority as Adolf Hitler did, nor do they have the ambition to conquer the world, particularly since the nation itself was victimized by an Asian version of holocaust during the WWII. Plus, what the world see in China today is not a bunch of militarily mobilized, war-oriented industries, but a robust market economy intertwined with the rest of the world. All these make the 2008 Olympics by no means comparable to its Berlin counterpart, but instead, more akin to the one in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, which kick-started genuine democratization in the country after 40 years of military dictatorship.

Now is the time for Chinese leader to move forward. Olympics are perhaps not the panacea for all of China's problems; but, if properly handled, they can be where the solutions start.

Note: In this article, "China" and "Chinese government" refer to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its government, not their Republic of China (ROC) equivalents.

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