I find the Olympics irritating at the best of times. Two weeks of corporate-sponsored flag-waving in honour of a bunch of muscle-bound dullards is not my cup of tea.
But the orgy of China-bashing surrounding the Beijing Olympics is enough to make one spew. Yes, China is ruled by an authoritarian Stalinist regime that is ruthless in how it deals with dissent.
And yes, the people of Tibet have the right to national self-determination, though when they achieve it I hope they don’t use it to reinstate the rule of the Buddhist clergy.
But the democratic credentials of many of China’s critics don’t stand up to serious examination.
George Bush said shortly before arriving in Beijing, “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labour rights not to antagonise China’s leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.”
Who is he kidding? The US is closely allied to the regime in Egypt, whose respect for “freedom of assembly and labour rights” is shown by its repression of the Mahalla strikes, and to the Saudi royal family, who ruthlessly crush the slightest flickering of democratic sentiment.
Even Bush didn’t have the face to include the right to a fair trial in his list. Consider the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s ex-driver.
Even after serving the five and a half year sentence handed down by a military kangaroo court last week he may still not be freed, according to the New York Times, “because the Bush administration says that it can hold detainees [in Guantánamo Bay] until the end of the war on terror”.
Bush’s criticisms are hypocritical. But one might ask, since Western corporations profit from the cheap labour that China’s repressive regime delivers, why all the fuss over the Beijing Olympics? The answer is that China isn’t just any old dictatorship.
Its rapid economic growth is destabilising the existing global balance of power. Measured by market exchange rates, China’s share of global national income has risen from 2.6 percent in 1980 to around 6 percent today.
On another measure that is better at capturing the absolute size of national economies, China’s share is more like 11 percent.
This is still way below that of the US which, on the same two measures, accounts for 25 and 21 percent of global economic output. Nevertheless, China’s economic rise is reshuffling the relations between states.
For example, Third World states producing raw materials needed by China no longer need to go cap-in-hand to the US-dominated World Bank for loans and accept intrusive “conditionalities” that require them to reshape their economy and policies along neoliberal lines.
This doesn’t mean that Chinese investment in Africa or Latin America is benevolent or disinterested. It is a highly state-controlled capitalist country securing its supplies of natural resources.
But the fact remains that a lot of the hullaballoo about China is motivated less by concern for human rights, or Tibet or the environment, but by fear of Chinese power.
Bush told the Washington Post that it’s “important to engage the Chinese” but the message seems to be also – remember who’s boss and don’t throw your weight around.
In all this, it seems to be the Western powers that are in denial. They behave as if things are still as they were immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the US and its allies could do what they liked.
But things have changed. US power is now in decline. The West faces challengers increasingly confident of their own strength. If they’re pushed too hard, then, as the fighting in the Caucasus shows, they’ll bite back.