On the BBC yesterday (BBC radio’s 45-minute daily compilation of highlights, NewsPod, is available for free at iTunes), two British directors got what the correspondent called “the Spielberg test.” They were in Beijing as their short films were premiered as part of the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August. In the wake of the U.S. director’s resignation as a consultant to the opening ceremonies — in a letter to Chinese officials, he complained they weren’t doing enough to mitigate the tragedy in Darfur — the sheepish UK directors were asked how they felt about being in China as part of the government’s big propaganda. The pair were discomfited and said they might have something more to say about it all in a week or so.
With great respect to Mr. Spielberg, the BBC, and everyone else who is upset about China’s policies on whatever subject you please, what did they expect? Since 1949, China’s form of government has been — you can look it up on Wikipedia — a one-party totalitarian communist state which limits or denies most individual freedoms. This information was also available to the International Olympic Committee when Beijing was selected for the summer games this year. Everyone hopes China uses this moment of international attention to showcase progress on many political and cultural fronts. Yet think how China has changed the last 36 years, or even ten. No one should expect any miracles between now and August, beyond, perhaps, the near-miraculous national transformation already underway. China is also notoriously resistant to other countries’ notions about its foreign policy. Still, in a thrilling harbinger of peace after literally a half-century of war, the New York Philharmonic performed in North Korea today in part because China has been using its influence, as we trust it will continue to do, to pressure the North Koreans on their nuclear program. For the sake of millions of Koreans and tens of thousands of U.S. volunteers who have a stake in avoiding nuclear catastrophe, it would be appropriate to acknowledge China’s constructive role as we implore it to do more in Darfur and elsewhere.
Besides, as it is everywhere, change is coming in China. Last month, our three-member Nixon Foundation delegation visited the Beijing headquarters of the Olympic Organizing Committee, a gleaming skyscraper bursting with the energy of barely controlled chaos. It felt like a U.S. political campaign as bright, articulate, casually dressed young people herded their more conservatively dressed superiors among meetings. We met an official in charge of international media relations who complained that foreign reporters kept asking about Beijing’s pollution and traffic. (There was even more on his agenda that week as word leaked out about workers who’d died rushing to finish the so-called Birds Nest.) Reporters should be more positive, he suggested. We told him President Bush would agree, since in a 20-question news conference, 18 or 19 are likely to be negative. The official smiled graciously and was soon escorted to his next meeting by the future of China.