The argument is constantly made that Beijing should be denied the 2008 Olympics because it suppresses its own people, is stirring up unhealthy and belligerent nationalist fervor and wants to become a monster power that will devour its neighbors. The specter of Hitler in Berlin in 1936 is raised, as if his aggression could be repeated by China.
Beijing, in fact, is probably more like Seoul in 1988 than Berlin in 1936. There is no question that the current Chinese leadership will get a boost from a successful Olympics bid. But I think even they do not realize how constrained they will be by such a victory. Like South Korea's generals, who were unable or unwilling to suppress a flowering democracy movement, Beijing will find itself less able to crush its people's aspirations under the world's close scrutiny.
Those aspirations are now rising, feeding into what could be a growing political-reform movement within the Communist Party. Job cuts in money-losing state enterprises are fueling urban discontent; arbitrary fees and rampant corruption are enraging farmers. The Internet and increased economic interdependency are connecting Chinese to the wider world and expanding expectations. A regime accustomed to the arbitrary and unchallenged exercise of power will have less flexibility to act than ever.
If Beijing is awarded the Games, we can expect that the chance of war across the Taiwan Strait will diminish. Just as Chinese membership in the WTO will oblige Beijing to play by accepted international rules, the Olympics should help keep hard-liners in the regime in check. Most important, both developments should afford the Chinese people an opportunity to broaden their limited political and economic freedoms.
The United States strongly resisted giving China the 2000 Olympics. This did nothing for the Chinese people and allowed the government to flail us. All the old racist, colonial, imperialist themes were dragged out. We do not have to appease the propaganda dinosaurs. But there is no reason to feed them--especially when there can be no good outcome.
I'm reminded of a conversation I had with President George Bush after the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The president was concerned about what would happen to these young people. He asked me, "Jim, Do you think the Chinese authorities would do anything if we asked them [to be lenient]?" I replied, "Yes, they'll probably deal with the prisoners in private instead of in public." But under the glare of the Olympics spotlight, that would prove harder than ever.
James R. Lilley is a senior fellow at AEI.