Criticism continues to mount over President Bush’s decision, announced last Thursday, to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. John McCain and Barack Obama said they would hold off making the commitment to go, and others said outright that he should not appear at the event. “I think that a president who has said we are conducting warfare in different parts of the world in order to promote democracy and human rights loses credibility when he announces that he is going to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in a country that is the world’s worst human rights abuser,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the plain-speaking California Republican. Radio talk show host Joe Madison was even more direct: “This is the equivalent of a president going to Nazi Germany in 1936. This is absolutely wrong.”
Yet Dubya, believing he is positively right, is determined to show up in the Chinese capital on August 8. “He believes he’s going to China to support first and foremost our athletes,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “He sees this as a sporting competition.”
Really? As rationalizations go, this one is particularly weak. As the president’s staff may know, there will be no competitive events held during the opening ceremony. Moreover, there won’t be that many American athletes there anyway. Most of them will be staying away from China until the last possible moment to minimize exposure to the capital city’s chemical-laden, particle-heavy atmosphere. If his goal is to cheer America’s finest competitors on August 8, he should instead go to their training camp in nearby Japan.
It would have been better if Ms. Perino had told the truth and said “the president is going to Beijing to pay homage to China’s autocrats even though his presence will be seen as support for their efforts to legitimize their abhorrent rule.” These words, although lacking in diplomatic nicety, at least would have had the advantage of not being a transparent fabrication. Just about everyone knows that the Chinese are using the opening ceremony as a loyalty test for foreign presidents and prime ministers. By showing up, President Bush, who did not go to Athens in 2004 or Turin in 2006, will be performing the modern version of the kowtow to the Chinese supremos. The once-inspiring leader who said he would make no compromises in defending freedom will be traveling halfway around the globe to honor unrepentant dictators. President Bush, in short, will undermine all that he stands for as he attends a three-and-a-half-hour spectacle glorifying Chinese communism.
Buffeted by criticism over the weekend, Mr. Bush on Monday felt compelled to defend his controversial decision. “The Chinese people are watching very carefully about the decisions by world leaders and I happen to believe not going to the opening ceremony for the games would be an affront to the Chinese people, which may make it more difficult to be able to speak frankly with the Chinese leadership,” he said, while in Japan for the G8 summit.
Nothing in Mr. Bush’s assessment is correct. As an initial matter, it is striking how little enthusiasm for the Games there is in China, even in Beijing, the primary host city. “The Olympics are for the government,” said one middle-aged resident of the capital city to me last week when I was there. “We laobaixing still have to earn a living.” There appears to be even less interest in other parts of the country. Many Shanghai residents, for example, do not even know that their grand metropolis is the site of some Olympic events.
Of course, China’s noisy internet community, dominated by teenagers and men in their twenties, is largely nationalistic and all fired up. Chinese “netizens” would surely notice President Bush’s absence, but should American statecraft be determined by the sentiments of a handful of rabid foreigners, who are predisposed in any event to wish us ill? Of course, Chinese leaders would be upset if Mr. Bush did not attend, and they might act petulantly in the short-term. Yet they are not children. On the contrary, they are ruthlessly pragmatic and would at least secretly respect Mr. Bush for his show of strength. They generally despise obsequious foreigners and have viewed our generous policy of engagement of them as a sign of weakness. They are, in the final analysis, insecure autocrats, and President Bush should have no difficulty being frank with them whether he goes to their capital next month or not.
The Chinese Olympics are turning out to be a debacle. Beijing’s leaders have violated every human rights promise they made to get the Games, and their government is more repressive today than it was in July 2001 when the International Olympic Committee made its award to China. To stage the extravaganza, they have employed mass mobilization techniques and reimposed strict social controls as if they still ran a Maoist state. Now, they are ejecting students and long-term foreign residents and, stung by a series of protests in Tibet and elsewhere in China beginning in March, are severely restricting visas, denying entry to, among others, tourists holding Olympics tickets.
The Games were supposed to open up China, but they are having the opposite effect. And President Bush is going to the Chinese capital to celebrate the Olympics as the Communist Party intensifies repression to levels not seen since 1989. His visit, therefore, will be a shameful moment in America’s relations with China.