»  National Review Online

June 26th, 2001

  Neutral on the Olympics


After careful deliberation, the Bush administration has decided to take no position on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. By itself, this is not a very remarkable decision. The U.S. government is not required to take any position on bids to host the Olympics, and many people would prefer they not do so. As a conversational cliché, "the Olympics are too politicized" is almost as well entrenched as "looks like rain" or "how about them Yankees!" Speaking as a conservative who wishes the federal government to butt out of places where it doesn't belong, I guess I should be glad that the administration has declared neutrality on Beijing's Olympic bid.

I'm not, though. One thing the federal government ought to do, whenever it can do it without any injury to U.S. interests, is speak up for civilized values against barbarism and lawlessness. Another thing it ought to do is express loud anger and indignation when U.S. citizens are hustled off into dungeons and tortured by foreign powers, as has been the fate of Dr. Li Shaomin, currently in the tender care of Communist China's secret police. One thing the federal government ought not do is pander to the yearning for respectability that thugs and gangsters naturally have. And another thing it ought not do is play into the national psychoses of an aberrant, autistic nation badly in need of some tough love.

It would be nice if we could discuss this matter simply as a clash of values and wills with the Chinese Communist Party. Unfortunately, as you will know if you have spoken to any Chinese people about Beijing's candidacy for the Olympics, there is much more to it than this.

By way of further insights, allow me to introduce you to James Bruce, Eighth Earl of Elgin. When, in 1860, the Chinese seized British envoys travelling under a flag of truce, Lord Elgin marched his army into Beijing. He then burned the Emperor's Summer Palace, in order, as he said, "to punish the court while sparing the people."

Lord Elgin had a point. The imperial court was not popular with the Chinese people, being made up of Manchus, a Siberian tribe who had seized the Empire from an imploding Chinese dynasty two hundred years previously. Punishing the court while sparing the people must have seemed to the noble Lord like good P.R. And, of course, a Chinese general in the same position would have burned the whole city of Beijing, after first putting its population to the sword. Lord Elgin probably thought he was making a good impression on the Chinese masses.

Alas, in China no good deed goes unpunished. The burning of the Summer Palace is regarded by all Chinese people as a major atrocity against their national dignity and honor. To this day, an Englishman in China is in daily peril of being buttonholed by some angry patriot and scolded for Lord Elgin's act of magnanimity. (It is interesting to note by way of comparison that after fifteen years in the United States, I have yet to be told off for General Ross's burning of the White House in 1814.) The Chinese man in the street may not have cared for the Manchu court, but he took the point of view that the Summer Palace was a Chinese palace, built with the labor of Chinese people on Chinese soil, filled with Chinese artefacts made with loving care by Chinese craftsmen, and that its destruction was an insult to the whole nation.*

Some similar psychological dynamic is at work in the Chinese bid to have Beijing host the Olympics. For those of us who oppose Beijing's bid, our strongest motivation is to vex the Chinese Communist Party, and to punish them for their continuing gross offenses against international law and decency — most prominently, at the present time, for their brutal seizing of American citizens and near-citizens in violation of all diplomatic proprieties. As I pointed out when I last wrote about Beijing's Olympic bid: " We should not give these tyrants anything they want, unless the giving will shift the balance of power away from them and to their people." Denying the Olympics to Beijing would be a stinging rebuke to the Communists — a plain message to them that we do not consider their vicious little tyranny sufficiently respectable to play host to an international sporting event established on high principles. It would be "punishing the court while sparing the people."

And yet, like Lord Elgin, we should get no thanks from the Chinese people, only fierce anger. As with the Manchus, you cannot find anyone in China who has a good word for the Communist Party. The Party is universally detested for its corruption and brutality. If granting the Olympics to Beijing had no purpose but to boost the fortunes of the Chinese Communist Party, nobody in China would want them.

Yet practically everybody in China, including even many dissidents, does want them, very badly. Why? Why is it so all-fired important to them? Why will the rejection of Toronto's bid, or Paris's, or Osaka's, be a third-lead item on the news in those countries, while the rejection of Beijing's bid will be a stupendous national trauma for the Chinese? The answer lies in that terrible, aching inferiority complex that makes China such a danger to the rest of us, and which, paradoxically, does so much to hinder China's development as a civilized modern nation. The French, the Japanese and the Canadians woke to awareness of themselves as nations when they were already surrounded by other nations much like them in size, in population, in level of cultural development. China, by contrast, became aware of being a nation among other nations only after being woken rather abruptly, and by no means gently, from a 3,000-year dream of herself as the one, the only civilization.

Yet as much as one may understand the origins of China's collective neurosis, and perhaps even sympathize with it to some degree, I do not believe we should pander to it. The pressing need here is for the Chinese people — not the court, the people — to get acquainted with some unwelcome truths.

Look: there is probably no more important task for the world today than to think how we can help the Chinese get themselves a rational system of government. Everyone who cares about the future of the human race should be racking his brains to come up with something we can do. I like to think I have done my own small bit in this regard; but no-one can ever really do enough, and this issue should be a constant preoccupation for all of us. However, the beginning of wisdom in this matter is the recognition that there are features of Chinese culture and common Chinese belief that are large impediments to the kind of progress we want. First and foremost, there is the deep-ingrained imperialism of the Chinese — practically all of them. I have posed the following little experiment elsewhere.  Try asking pretty much any modern Chinese person which of the following he would prefer: for the Communists to stay in power indefinitely, unreformed, but in full control of the "three T's" (Tibet, Turkestan, Taiwan); or a democratic, constitutional government without the three T's. His answer will depress you.

The continued military occupation of two million square miles of other people's land, and the bullying and threatening of Taiwan, are unacceptable violations of civilized values and international order. They are, however, wildly popular among the Chinese. Now, modern history (Turkey, Russia, Austria, Spain) suggests rather strongly that a power of the imperial-despotic type cannot advance to constitutional nationhood until it has first shed its imperial possessions. If we want China to be free, we have some serious issues to discuss with the Chinese people. Offering tokens of respectability to their flammable, ramshackle empire is not the right way to begin this conversation. At some point we shall have to say to them: "If you want the respect and esteem of the rest of the world, you must withdraw your armies to the borders of metropolitan China and stop making belligerent threats against people who mean you no harm."

This will not go down very well, for the same reason that an IOC rejection will not go down very well. Yet it would surely be wrong of us to pretend to a respect and an esteem that we cannot, as believers in liberty, justice and law, honestly feel. It would be equally wrong to give China the impression that she is acceptable as a full member of the international community when, for reasons that go deeper than the continuing rule of the Chinese Communist Party, she is not in fact acceptable at all, if our ideals mean anything to us. "Olympism," as defined in the Olympic Charter, includes "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." China does not yet rise to that standard. The Chinese Communist Party does not; neither, it is sad but necessary to say, do the Chinese people.


* Much of the Summer Palace was in fact designed by the 18th-century Milanese artist Giuseppe Castiglione. It is supposed to have represented a high point of Sino-European artistic collaboration. If you like the rococo style, perhaps it was; but looking at what remains of the Summer Palace, I can never quite banish from my own mind the thought that, from the strictly esthetic point of view, its burning may have been a net gain for civilization.