By any measure, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics yesterday were a spectacular show. But in the weeks before this highly anticipated and in many ways controversial event, there has been hardly any good news. And the narrative from most of the Western media has been something like this: Back in 2001, China promised to behave and improve its human-rights records, in exchange for hosting the Games, but has broken its promises; there is more repression of Tibetans and other minorities, more jailing of dissidents, more harassment of the foreign press, more pollution, more censorship; in short, China is not democratizing.
Some of these concerns are genuine and understandable. After all, the Olympics is a great occasion for people from around world to celebrate the human spirit, to have their national teams compete under fair rules, and to bring us all closer together, as a global family. The host nation is called upon to live up to high expectations. China must learn to live with international scrutiny and with protests both inside and outside its borders. But the heavy reporting of negative news is painting an incomplete picture.
Few people I have talked to during my frequent visits to China accept the story that their country is worse off in terms of human rights than in 2001.
We can put aside the government's self-promoting claims, but well-informed Chinese believe that China has made considerable strides in human rights in the past seven years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations recognizes freedom from poverty as a major category of human rights. China has lifted some 100 million people out of poverty. Despite severe limitations, there are hundreds of new legislative enactments that protect property rights and workers' rights. China has abolished a system that restricted freedom of movement among regions, and citizens can hold on to their passports to travel abroad. The Supreme People's Court now reviews all death sentences. The children of migrant workers can go to school in the urban centres where their parents work. And China has joined more international human-rights treaties.
There are serious problems of implementation and of government interference, but these tangible steps are moving China toward the rule of law.
To enumerate these advances is not to endorse the Chinese government. They are mainly due to the Chinese people's continuous struggle, often against the mighty control apparatus of an authoritarian state.
Even in the political sphere, there is expanded leeway. China now leads the world in the number of Internet users - 250 million - and cellphone subscribers - more than 550 million people, who send tens of billions of short messages a day. Despite censorship, they use these new tools to push for more rights and openness, and to challenge the authorities with rising success.
The government still interferes, still rounds up severe critics, and has made life harder for foreign reporters since the Tibetan crisis in March. But China's progress since 2001 has been largely along the positive trajectory of the past three decades.
The Chinese enjoy more freedom than at any time in recent history. Ordinary Chinese people enthusiastically support the Beijing Olympics, contrary to many critics who label the Games as a government propaganda showcase.
The protests against the Olympic torch relays in London, Paris, and other cities in Western countries strengthened that feeling. Though not very fond of many aspects of the government, most of the Chinese people were outraged by those who spoke of the "genocide Olympics." They want to have a good sports party, and they want to have a good time, like everybody else around the world. Their passion is for the basketball star Yao Ming and the Olympic gold hurdler Liu Xiang. They don't like to be lumped together with their government, and resent the exploitation of the occasion for political purposes.
Comparisons of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the Nazi regime's 1936 Games in Berlin are profoundly ignorant. Whereas Hitler's tyranny in Germany was intensifying through the 1930s, China has moved away from the personal dictatorship of Mao toward a more collective leadership. Whereas Germany went on to launch aggressive wars against other countries after the 1936 Games, leading to the disasters of the Second World War, China has in recent years pursued a good-neighbour policy and settled almost all its border disputes with the surrounding countries.