Actress Joan Chen, writing in today’s Washington Post, traces the arc of her native land. “Since the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s,” she writes, “I have witnessed unimaginable progress in China.”
For her, human rights groups in Washington are “anti-China.” But it’s time to move beyond criticism, implies Chen, who became an American citizen in 1989. “Times are changing,” she argues. “We need to be open-minded and farsighted. We need to make more friends than enemies.”
Chen is evidently concerned about the Olympic torch protests in the streets of San Francisco. The demonstrations, she fears, will antagonize the Chinese people and anger their government just as their country is joining, in the words of Steve Clemons, “the blue chip end of the international order.” As the New York Times noted in an editorial this morning, “Given the country’s mighty economic power, nobody really wants to antagonize Beijing.”
That’s especially true when people like Chen and Clemons believe that China will continue its current course. Bill Gates assumed it will when he spoke on Friday in Miami at a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. “The fact that China is getting rich is overall a very good thing,” he said. “If you care about the human condition, really then a richer China is better.”
All of us want a better China. Yet the way to a better China is not to see the country the way we wish it to be—as Chen, Clemons, and Gates want us to do—but as it actually is. When we fail to speak out about the reality of the modern Chinese state, autocrats in Beijing feel emboldened. The real story behind the protests accompanying the Olympic torch relay is not how noisy or unruly the demonstrations were—it is that China’s leaders actually thought that ordinary people in the West would gather in their own streets to cheer the display of the Olympic torch, which Beijing has made a symbol of Chinese authoritarianism. Beijing’s rulers thought that way because Western presidents and prime ministers have almost always played along with China’s notions of its own grandeur.
Members of the International Olympic Committee will meet on Friday to consider ending the international leg of the torch relay. That is an excellent idea. The Chinese government might be embarrassed by a premature return to China of the Olympic flame, but it is time that we reject further abhorrent celebrations of their repression in our free lands.