The hundreds of thousands of Beijingers who poured into Tiananmen Square on Friday, July 13, to celebrate the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the 2008 Olympics to their city marked the beginning of a new era for China. As they took over the streets, waving flags, hanging out of cars, and high-fiving strangers, they celebrated yet another milestone in the arrival of China on the world stage. If that giddy and ebullient night was any indication, it's a China increasingly open to engagement with the wider world. The country hadn't seen anything like that sort of spontaneity since the prodemocracy demonstrations of 1989, which were held in the same place.
The IOC made the right decision in awarding the Games to China, a rising sports power as well as an up-and-coming economic and geopolitical power. It gave the Games not to the Chinese government, after all, but to the Chinese people. Despite what many in the Chinese Communist Party may hope, the Olympics will not make people forget the blood that was shed in Tiananmen 12 years ago. But maybe, just maybe, the Olympics will help to heal the wounds that were left by that demonstration--not to mention those suffered during the Tiananmen Square demonstration of 1976, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward. The Olympics may allow a more secure China to at last be able to face its own past.
We have seven years until the Games open. During that time, China will be under scrutiny at home and abroad as never before. China's entry into the World Trade Organization will force sweeping changes not only in trade but in its legal and administrative structures. These changes will work in the direction of more transparency.
The sunlight that these openings provide should, of course, be used by the U.S. and the West to continue pressuring China to move away from dictatorship and toward democracy. After all, China is a country that for all its remarkable economic and social progress remains one of the world's most repressive states. Witness the actions taken against the Falun Gong movement.
The hope is that the Olympics will do for China in 2008 what they did for South Korea in 1988, when the country was run by a military dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. The Olympics restrained the authoritarian government from cracking down on dissidents, giving them enough time to organize and fight for free elections. In the end, they won that right, elections were held, and South Korea began to evolve into a true democracy. The Olympics clearly played a significant role in that transformation. The Games will decrease the likelihood of any aggression toward Taiwan over the next seven years.
China's leaders want the Games as a way of legitimizing their rule. They want the WTO membership to cement reforms and to show that the country is taking its proper place on the world stage. But the Games and the WTO will force an openness that China's leaders cannot begin to imagine. When the history of modern China is written, we may look back and see that it began on Friday the 13th.