The politics of sport

William Safire

September 21, 1990|By William Safire

BEIJING — SIX THOUSAND muscular young people, 3,000 foreign journalists and an estimated 700,000 "watchers" -- Chinese assigned to make sure no unsuitable demonstrations take place -- are gathering for next week's Asian Games.

Drab Beijing has been transformed to play host to the 11th Asiad, an our-crowd Olympics. A Disney-esque panda clasping a gold medal is the symbol; balloons and banners bedeck the streets leading to Tiananmen Square; new luxury hotels bedazzle visitors.

To Americans, politics is sport; to Asians, sport is politics. Beijing's authorities are using this event to assert their regional prestige, to unify their nation behind the goal of winning gold medals, and to expunge the memory of last summer's "events" at Tiananmen.

Chinese diplomacy is on an egg roll. A secret summit two weeks ago with Vietnam paved the way for an organized standoff in Cambodia: Vietnam will get out of Cambodia on the understanding China will keep the Khmer Rouge under control.

New relations have been established with Indonesia and Singapore, and Saudi Arabia has been wooed away from its longtime alliance with Taiwan. What's more, by voting with the civilized world to cut off trade with Iraq, China's biggest arms customer, Beijing has been hailed for its good behavior.

All this is part of a drive for respectability. With control of its political system re-established, the leaders felt confident enough to end martial law. They say they have released all but three dozen of what they call "hooligans" held in Beijing.

The deputy foreign minister assigned to deal with the U.S., Liu Hua Qiu, tells my colleagues and me that he heard some complaints about the deal to release the leading dissident, Fang Lizhi, but is pleased that the impediment is removed. Fang was "small potatoes," he claims, and the Chinese are under the impression that "the U.S. government would not make use of him in any way that would embarrass China."

These moves are sops to Cerberus -- compromises that help establish the basic posture of internal strictness and external relaxation. The Chinese leaders, transfixed with the threat of chaos that may follow the death of Deng Xiaoping, talk only of the need for stability.

This dichotomy -- inward frown, outward smile -- leads to some illogical positions. Iraq is an example. China denounces the invasion of Kuwait and votes in the U.N. for immediate withdrawal, but in the next breath decries superpower intervention and the use of force. What to do if Saddam Hussein does not budge? The Chinese do not want to face that. Many here expect a military strike in November, after our elections, but they will see how it comes out and proceed to second-guess.

The drive for respectability has a purpose: an end to sanctions imposed after the bloody crackdown. The Chinese want most-favored-nation status, World Bank and Export-Import Bank loans and a parade of American businessmen to these snazzy new hotels. They talk about going to the Japanese and Europeans if we do not hurry, and those economies are eager to move in, but they drive harder bargains than we do; China wants the American trade.

Is it in our interest to forgive and forget? As an "old friend," I think it is more in our interest to induce and incentivize. We do China no favor by endorsing the present leadership's policy of inner tension and outer relaxation; we do the Chinese justice by linking inner and outer action.

That means we should urge China to worry less about stability and more about rigidity. The reason that workers and peasants joined the students in last year's demonstrations was not so much a yearning for democracy as a revulsion at corruption and nepotism. A welfare state has at least the semblance of idealism; a payoff state may suit the cynics for a time but is inherently unstable.

I get the sense the post-Deng struggle has already begun, with Deng swinging back to the reformist camp. A party plenum will be held here after the Asian Games, and changes may begin at that conclave.

China's future cannot be with a command economy because that will not fit into the world. The failure of Gorbachev's perestroika demonstrates that China's future cannot be with a fake market system in which government sells power.

If capitalism is too much too soon, what's left? Answer: Some Chinese form of untrammeled enterprise that uses government to enforce honesty.

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