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An Olympic Force for Change—A Commentary by Sue Meng ’09

The following commentary was published in the Washington Post on April 20, 2008.

An Olympic Force for Change
By Sue Meng ’09

A rash of protests disrupted the Olympic torch relays in San Francisco, Paris and London. Hu Jia, a Chinese activist, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison this month for "inciting subversion" of Communist Party rule. The central government continues to crack down on unrest in Tibet. What was to be a triumphant medal count for China is quickly becoming a tally of its human rights abuses. It looks as if the Olympics are doing little to change China, and China is doing a lot to change the Olympics.

But the Chinese government is one thing; 1.3 billion Chinese people are another.

It is important not to conflate China with the Chinese government. The Olympics have stirred an enormous outpouring of nationalism within China and among Chinese abroad. We should not dismiss Chinese nationalism as part and parcel of the Communist machine. Nationalism has forged civic engagement, cutting across groups normally divided by age, class and geography. This engagement leads to greater awareness of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Far from legitimizing an authoritarian regime, the Olympics foster the kind of nationalism that will help the Chinese carve out a civil society, which may be the best antidote.

Already the Games have become a rallying point for millions of Chinese eager for China to take its place on the international stage. China's turbulent history in the 20th century makes clear why hosting the Olympics strikes a deep chord of national pride: In a single lifetime, millions of Chinese will see the pendulum swing from the famine and isolationism of the 1950s to recognition and global integration in 2008. From all corners of the country and from overseas, Chinese are flocking to Beijing to witness history. The Olympics galvanized Chinese nationalism. Chinese nationalism will change China.

Nationalism in China does not necessarily mean a blind capitulation to government's repressive tendencies. Increasingly, there is a civic dimension to Chinese nationalism. Zhu Xueqin, a professor at Shanghai University, argues that compared with 10 years ago, people today are more aware of their "civic rights," which include the right to information, the right to question the authority of the government and the right to be protected from retaliation.

Cases have already arisen in which ordinary citizens claimed their status and rights as citizens and sued for those rights. Often, these lawsuits have been brought against land developers and local officials who have run roughshod over individuals. In 2007, Zhu Lifeng, a farmer in Zhejiang province, became the first man to win a lawsuit against the local government for demolishing his farmhouses without his consent. Although the success rate in cases against the government is still extremely low, the number of people aware that such a right exists is growing. People have also exercised their right to vote in village elections and used popular investigative news programs and publications to expose wrongdoings by local officials. Certainly, these are the bright lights of a generally repressive regime, but in their glow we see a changed understanding of what it means to be Chinese.

A good sign for the future of the rule of law and human rights in China is that national identity is increasingly determined by civic groups and virtual communities rather than by the government alone. To be "Chinese" is no longer whatever state propaganda says it is. Moreover, people are less dependent on the government to satisfy their basic needs. Charities, clubs and associations of all kinds are booming. Lily Tsai, a political scientist at MIT, has shown that in villages of similar size, wealth and location, the determining factor for whether there is effective provision of public goods -- such as paved roads, safe drinking water and working schools -- is the presence of such organizations as village lineage groups and temple committees. Insofar as it establishes common ground and encourages the growth of civil society and communal associations, nationalism might be just what China needs.

Americans see Chinese nationalism and point to the dangers -- such as how it fuels the crackdown in Tibet. But for us to be a constructive part of change in China, we must recognize the advantages of Chinese nationalism. China won't be goaded to change. The last time China faced international pressure from without and massive rebellions within, a 300-year dynasty collapsed and the country barreled into civil war. If the goal is real change, not just moral condemnation, the key is to look at forces within China.

Today's growing civic engagement might one day be an effective check on an authoritarian state. The Olympics provide the catalyst for the Chinese to rally around a collective identity. China will have its moment in the sun. What follows is the harvest.

The writer, a Rhodes Scholar with a degree in modern Chinese studies from Oxford, is a student at Yale Law School.