KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Visiting Beijing last year, U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps likened it to “a big American city” with 7-Elevens, Subway sandwiches, Sizzlers, Starbucks and “everything we have in the states.”
Everything ... but democracy.
Olympics will be way for China to show off its economic success to world
That word, at least as Americans define it, has lost some of its star power around the globe in recent years, to the concern of Western scholars and human-rights advocates.
Many of the fastest-growing economies, the newest and tallest skyscrapers, even the highest approval ratings from people polled about their national direction - they’re found where autocrats rule.
China for now leads that pack.
As Beijing this week takes center stage to launch the Summer Olympics, the host’s message of economic modernization is expected to be as loud and repetitive as a fireworks display.
But the show won’t be aimed at Americans, Western Europeans or others who embrace the ballot box. Rather, experts say, the Chinese leadership hopes to peddle to the developing world - and to the nation’s own citizenry - a “China model” of 21st-century success.
“Because America’s reputation under President Bush has fallen in many places, China’s opportunity to project itself as a model of development has risen,” said Kerry Brown, a senior fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.
In his book The China Fantasy, James Mann observes: “As other authoritarian leaders around the world seek to stifle political opposition, they look to China as a model.”
That model, a blend of economic openness and strict control over politics and dissent, has in the span of three decades lifted millions of Chinese into the middle class. A population of 1.3 billion - a fifth of the world’s people - has emerged from isolation as the fulcrum of global trade, and increasingly they’re free to choose their own educational and entrepreneurial paths.
But they can’t choose their leaders, except in village elections.
The newspapers are tightly controlled by the party-state, which enables the Communist mouthpiece, People’s Daily, to go unchallenged when declaring: “We have implemented the biggest human right there is. We are able to feed our 1.3 billion citizens.”
Behind Beijing’s vibrant streetscape, thousands of dissidents sit in jails for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Political arrests climbed as the Beijing Olympics approached, according to the Dui Hua (meaning Dialogue) Foundation, a San Francisco-based human-rights group. Indictments for endangering state security - which includes “splittism,” or inciting political division - rose from 349 in 2003 to 619 last year.
Given the March crackdown on Tibetan monks and public unrest after the May earthquake in Sichuan province, “I imagine 2008 will be a banner year” in arrests, said founder John Kamm.
China’s rural poor are bused to the cities, through a polluted fog, to help build the nation’s future. The Olympic venues alone cost $40 billion.
The state’s “net police” - a force of 30,000 censors - block Internet sites and screen text messages.
Urban couples raise one child because the powers decree “population security” is best for the whole.
“People in developing countries have a much better understanding of the issues and the obstacles that China is facing,” said Randall Peerenboom, author of China Modernizes, “and (they) appreciate the progress and the tough choices that are and must be made.”
Others doubt that any nation can replicate China’s economic burst.
“There is no China model” for others to emulate, said Arch Puddington, research director for Freedom House, advocating human rights worldwide.
“No other country is developing, or can develop, a system along the lines of China’s. Only China has this record of success anywhere,” partly because nowhere did so many people have so far to climb.
Still, plenty of evidence exists outside China that authoritarian regimes can breed economic glory.
Dubai, Singapore and Moscow have become high-rise showcases of financial power, drawing praise from U.S. business leaders for their can-do spirit and swift, uncomplicated decision-making.
“Democracy is on the wane,” declared the German journal Der Spiegel. “In today’s global economy, many companies are all too willing to kowtow to authoritarian regimes for the sake of gaining new orders for business.”
Meantime, Freedom House reports that after two decades of hopeful developments in the spread of democracy, the world saw a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2006 and 2007.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin rolled back post-Cold War reforms by re-nationalizing the country’s energy and broadcast industries and cracked down on political opposition in recent elections.
His people thought it OK. A survey by Russia’s Levada Center and U.S.-based WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 44 percent of Russians supported a “more centrally controlled government as in China.”
Only 30 percent favored “a liberal democracy as in the United States.”
The ideals of participatory government and advancement of human rights continue to strike positive chords in most worldwide polls.
WorldPublicOpinion.org recently surveyed people in 17 nations - from China to Iran to France to the United States. It found, on average, 84 percent of respondents supported the concept of leaders being selected through open elections.
Even in China, “the people endorse the principles of democracy wholeheartedly,” said Steven Kull, director of the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes.
“When I was there with focus groups, they said that a lot: ‘We’ll be a democracy someday. But for now, well, we’re busy.’ “
The Communist leadership has said China will be fully democratic in 40 years.
Conventional wisdom holds that economic success seeds democratic reform, that a swelling middle class is bound to demand more control of government.
University of Kansas political scientist John Kennedy, who recently returned from China, said the nation had made positive strides - implementing village elections, collective-bargaining laws and some litigation rights.
“China is not a police state,” said Kennedy. “In fact, China is more open and politically freer now than it has been in 30 years.”
Jing Wang, a law student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said she hoped the Olympics would change “old impressions” of her homeland, where she intended to practice.
“I was totally free to pursue what I wanted to be, and I decided on American law,” she said. “People do want this reform. It just really takes time.”
China’s image since 2002 has improved in the eyes of Afrikaners, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners, according to recent surveys. It has diminished among the peoples of the United States and India.
And the Chinese people? They’re happy, getting happier and convinced the world admires their country.
Seventy-seven percent of Chinese citizens polled last spring by the Pew Global Attitudes Project said they thought their country was popular abroad. Eighty-six percent were satisfied with the direction China was headed - up from 48 percent who said so in 2002.
“In most countries we survey, fewer than half the people say they’re satisfied,” said Richard Wike, the project’s associate director. “In the U.S. right now, only 23 percent say they’re satisfied. That’s pretty negative.”
It doesn’t shock experts.
“People in authoritarian states are more apt to say they trust their government leaders,” said Kull. “In democratic states, public confidence tends to be remarkably low.”
Majorities in Russia, Iran and Jordan said they were content with their governments, prompting academics to ask: Why?
Lacking a fully free press, do they simply not know about the failings of officials? Are subjects of an authoritarian regime merely mimicking what they’re told? Are voters in a democracy quicker to voice disapproval when open governments fail to deliver?
“Right now, the Chinese people are the most satisfied people on Earth, by far,” said human-rights advocate Kamm. “It’s a striking example of how their views have been molded by the authorities.
“So long as there’s no pressure from their own people to improve China’s image, things won’t change.”