It's a 100-day dash, and the world had better get at least a silver. In the time before the Beijing Olympics opens in August, the West has a chance to bring China further into the community of responsible nations. If we fail, we may spend the rest of the 21st century regretting that we didn't use some leverage when we had it. Half a dozen European leaders and the Democratic presidential candidates are urging a mini-boycott of Beijing's opening ceremonies. They're right to do so; it's the best shot we've got.
After promising Jacques Rogge and the International Olympic Committee that it would respect human rights, at least until the Games end, the regime moved in the opposite direction by stepping up its harassment of dissidents. While showing some important signs of maturity in joining regional efforts to deal with North Korean nukes, the government has found it hard to break bad habits: it took the bait in Tibet, indulging in stale denunciations of the Dalai Lama after cracking heads in the worst violence there in 20 years; it continues to back the military thugs in Burma, and promises of unfettered international press coverage and Internet access are proving worthless.
So are the efforts of the regime's public-relations geniuses. Just as images were being broadcast of the latest Olympic sport (hide-and-seek with the torch and demonstrators on the streets of San Francisco), China made a big announcement. More than three dozen Islamic extremists of Chinese extraction had been arrested and charged with plotting to kidnap athletes when they arrive in Beijing. Could be legit, but I wouldn't bet the subprime mortgage on it. The timing is highly suspicious.
The worst example of Chinese global irresponsibility is in Darfur. Andrew Natsios, President George W. Bush's special envoy in the region, is praising China's efforts to push the Sudanese regime to end the war and ease the plight of 3 million refugees. Where's the proof? China buys two thirds of Sudan's oil and thus calls the tune there. But it continues to violate the United Nations arms embargo by shipping weapons to Sudan, which are then passed on to the Janjaweed goons who, by some estimates, have killed or intentionally starved to death nearly half a million people. And they've raped on a scale the Chinese should remember from their own World War II experience with the Japanese in Nanking. Those vehicles the soldiers use for their genocide are called Dongfeng military trucks.
Foreign-policy realists say that human rights are important but should be far down the list of American issues with the Chinese—below restraining nukes (China has influence in Iran as well as North Korea), climate change (on average, one new Chinese coal-fired plant opens there every week) and balance of trade (the company you work for may be in hock to a Chinese bank). But these concerns are interrelated, and can be addressed only when China moves beyond lip service and actually abides by the norms of what, for lack of a more felicitous phrase, we call the global community.
Bush's private phone chats with Hu Jintao every six weeks aren't getting that done, but shaming the Chinese by withholding athletes from the Games won't work either. The insult would be felt not just by the Chinese government but by nearly all the Chinese people, who have made astonishing progress in the past three decades and deserve the recognition the Games offer. This isn't exactly the best time to make enemies of a billion more people around the globe. Their nationalist fervor and hair-trigger resentment of foreign intervention in Chinese affairs is grounded in bitter historical experience from the imperialist opium wars forward. So any comparison to the 1936 Games, when Hitler had been in power only three years, is misplaced. This is a coming-out party for a country, not for a murderous regime in power for 60 years.
There's a middle ground in all this, and that's where the threat of head-of-state no-shows at the opening ceremonies comes in. The beauty of the idea, first raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is that avoiding this mini-boycott will require the Chinese to sit down with all the European countries now considering it, and to do so outside the stultifying confines of the G8 summit.
The best way forward would be to temporarily set aside Tibet and the many other legitimate grievances animating the flame-chasing demonstrators in cities around the world and focus on Darfur. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times proposed a conference on genocide, with the intriguing idea that it be held in Rwanda, site of the worst mass killing of the past 25 years. If a meeting were held somewhere, if China signed a meaningful agreement and if the commitments were carried out on the ground in Darfur, then all the presidents and prime ministers show up in Beijing and watch the parade.
That's a lot of ifs. While the Chinese don't want their party spoiled, they aren't about to lose face by being forced to capitulate. But let's remember how high the stakes are. We have a window of only a couple of decades at most before China dislodges us as the largest economy in the world. At that point, it will either be a responsible (if likely still undemocratic) superpower, or it will be moving the planet in an authoritarian direction. The Olympics may be the world's last lever. A medal—maybe even a Nobel Prize—for the diplomats who can pull it properly.