Playing for Keeps

May 12, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the May/​June 2008 issue of The American.

Will the Beijing Olympics ultimately help or hurt the cause of freedom in China? Once one realizes that any expansion of trade—in goods, sports, ideas, or capital—widens the range of individual choice, the answer to this question is obvious. The Olympic Games will link China more closely to the free world, and the millions of people who view the Games will see firsthand the progress China has made since it opened to the outside world 30 years ago.

But the world will also hear the cries of demonstrators who rightly recognize the repression of human rights in China. Those protests, however, should not shut down the Games and deny Chinese and other athletes the opportunity to pursue their dreams of winning Olympic gold.

China has come a long way since Mao Zedong made capitalism a crime and abolished private property, but the CCP has yet to accept the basic principle of freedom. Today, Chinese people are allowed to own their own homes and are free to start their own businesses, to work in the nonstate sector, and to travel and trade.

But the state continues to deny people freedom of expression and to maintain its monopoly on political power. Nonetheless, one should not lose sight of the positive impact of economic liberalization. As Jianying Zha, author of China Pop, has noted, “The economic reforms have created new opportunities, new dreams, and to some extent, a new atmosphere and new mindsets.… There is a growing sense of increased space for personal freedom.”

In March 2004, the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended the official Chinese constitution, which now proclaims, “The lawful private property of citizens is inviolable.” And in 2007, the NPC passed a landmark property law to better protect ownership rights. Such legal changes would have been unthinkable during Mao’s reign.

In 1978, China’s foreign trade sector barely existed and was dominated by a handful of state trading companies. Today, the foreign trade sector is open to virtually anyone, and China is the world’s third‐​largest trading nation. The transition from central planning to a “socialist market economy” has allowed millions of people to escape from poverty and has increased the demand for safeguarding newly acquired property.

The Beijing Olympics will allow the Chinese people to take pride in the progress they have made and to show the rest of the world that China is a peaceful rising power, not an inevitable enemy of the West. “Peaceful development” has been the mantra of China’s leaders since 1978. Their primary goal has been economic development. Treating China like Cuba or North Korea would be counterproductive.

We should recognize the progress China has made and hope for a peaceful and prosperous China. However, we should not confuse market socialism with market liberalism. More importantly, we should remind the Chinese leadership that official proclamations of human rights must be backed up with institutions that limit the power of government and allow people freedom under a just rule of law.

Brave protesters are reminding the world of what still needs to be done in the cause of Chinese freedom. Their voices should not be shut out in the quest for Olympic gold.

About the Author
James A. Dorn

Vice President for Monetary Studies, Senior Fellow, and Editor of Cato Journal