A cursory glance at the coverage this week of the Beijing Olympics shows an increasing crescendo of negative commentary. That is evident everywhere from the Huffington Post to the mainstream media, and even sports journalists have been jumping on the anti-China bandwagon. The recent decision of the Chinese government to deny former medalist Joey Cheek entry into the country because of his stated plan to rally athletes to pressure Sudan on its Darfur policy is just the latest issue to inflame opinion.
There has also been a sudden surge of support for President Bush's tough talk on China and human rights, support that comes from many of the same people who have excoriated Bush for the human rights policies of his administration in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. There have been any number of caricatures labeling the Olympics the "genocide games," "the Orwell Olympics," and "the smog Olympics." All in all, not an auspicious start.
What is disturbing about these trends is that they come at a time when China is both rising as a global power and America is in a period of relative decline that may well be permanent. Even if it is temporary, there's little doubt that the unilateral dominance of the United States as a global economic power is coming to end, and that the future will see other areas of the world competing with the United States for influence and, for lack of a better word, "market share." That may not mean a substantial decrease in the standard of living in the United States, which will remain both affluent and a vital center of the global economic system. But it will lead -- and already has -- to a different landscape where the United States will have substantial influence but not be able to command the global system by fiat.
It is also disturbing that the focus of the critique of China revolves around legal human rights -- free speech, free assembly, and habeas corpus. It is undeniable that China is still lacking in these areas, yet it is also undeniable that individual Chinese have more freedom of expression, rights to private property, and rights to move and travel freely than they have had at any point in the past century and perhaps ever. It is undeniable as well that at comparable periods in U.S. and European history, the "rights" of individuals were not nearly as well-established as they later became and that the average worker in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States was faced with multiple constraints on their freedom that we would today label human rights violations. The trajectory in China has been towards greater freedoms, not fewer.
Finally, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which is the basis for most of contemporary human rights policies) gave as much attention to economic rights as it did to legal rights. It enunciated the view that economic security -- enough food, calories, shelter -- was essential to the human spirit and to human rights. On that score, China has managed to raise more people out of poverty in the past few decades than any society ever has, and to give them hope for the future. That is why a vast majority of people in China support their government and its trajectory, even while many recognize its shortcomings. Our own government is not without faults and failures, and we should attend to those. For many in China, the tenor of our criticisms seems like a combination of sour-grapes and arrogance. Whether or not that is a legitimate perspective, it should be recognized, and it suggests that constant public critique may do little to move the needle and in fact may have the opposite effect. There are ways to advance our sense of what is right and to do so in a way that actually has a chance of creating change. It is unlikely, however, that this current wave of anti-China sentiment will achieve that. To the contrary, the tone will accentuate the tensions and sow the seeds of animosity. That does not bode well for our collective future, and it will not serve the cause of greater freedom and openness.