The Beijing Olympics are now part of history. The question is how they will be viewed. Olympic history has had some extraordinary highs and lows, and of course Chinese leaders would like the just concluded extravaganza to take its place among the soaring successes. The category in which China competed, that of major leading international nations and the gold medal prize, was "the respect of the world." When it comes to spin control, image crafting, and all of the arts of the PR business, the Chinese won hands down.
It would have to be conceded in the first draft of history that Beijing succeeded. In fact, it succeeded so magnificently that it could be argued that every Olympic Games should be held in a totalitarian society where for a brief period of time at least, government control can produce an illusion of perfection. The China that the thousands of visitors experienced and millions of television viewers saw was one of shining sports venues, clean air, no poverty, exciting historical sights, great athletes, and gracious hosts.
And it was not just the images. The Chinese indeed had the gratification of seeing leaders from the world over travel to Beijing to watch their athletes compete, a sign of international respect for the country. President Bush's decision to be the first American president to travel to an Olympic opening ceremony outside the United States certainly has to be questioned in that context - and of course it provided some embarrassing images of the president from the beach volleyball arena, while Russian tanks were rolling into Georgia with brilliant timing.
Nor is there any denying that the Chinese medal count was impressive - though the scoring by certain international judges to please their hosts did have something to do with it. While the United States won the overall medal count of 110 (to China's 100), the Chinese are understandably emphasizing that they captured more gold medals than anyone else 51 (to the United States' 36).
Of course, some of their athletes did not exactly look like they filled the age requirements for their disciplines, bringing back memories of the old days when women athletes from the East Bloc countries looked suspiciously as though they had been hormonally enhanced. And the Chinese medal haul was like everything else in the Olympics - the result of central planning, along with the "scientific" approach to human development. The state chooses the athletes at tender ages, dictates their disciplines, isolates them from their families in training camps, and decides who they can see, what they can know and even what they can eat.
In some ways, it is hard for democratic societies to compete with a country like China. What democratic society, you would have to ask yourself, could get away with spending $44 billion of taxpayer money,on the Olympics? By comparison, the British government, which will host the London Olympics in 2012, anticipates spending a modest $18 billion, relying instead on the innate pluck, charm and ingenuity of the British to carry the day (which undoubtedly it will). And what open society could get away with bulldozing inconvenient and unsightly slums, shutting down factories and traffic for weeks to clear the air of pollution, silencing dissent, using computer generated images in the opening ceremony, and controlling the movements of visitors? Of course, none could, which is why "perfection" is not quite within the reach of societies where the government is accountable to the people, not the other way around.
No doubt the Chinese leadership must be thinking that if the 2008 Olympics do not change the image of their country worldwide, nothing ever will. But in reality they are wrong.
Previously, the image etched in minds around the world was that of Tiananmen Square 1989, with the figure of the lone protestor standing in the path of an on-coming tank, the very emblem of individual courage in the face of overwhelming repression. The Victims of Communism Memorial on Massachusetts Avenue, a replica of the Lady Liberty statue erected by students in Tiananmen Square, is a daily reminder to Washington commuters of the events of the summer of 1989.
For the moment, the image of the bird's nest arena and the athletic performances will hold the world's imagination. But what would really change the image of China in the 21st century would be to embrace democracy, respect human rights, abolish harsh population controls, and allow the obvious talents, strengths and ingenuity of the Chinese people to flourish freely. Now that would earn China a place on the world scene like nothing we have experienced in the past three weeks.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times