The possibility that China could be selected by the International Olympic Committee September 23 to host the summer Olympic Games in the year 2000 has caused consternation among American human rights activists in Congress and elsewhere.
On July 15 the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation convened a hearing on ''Prohibition of the Olympic Games in Beijing.'' Witnesses Anita DeFrantz, an American member of the International Olympic Committee, and Dr. Leroy Walker, president of the American Olympic Committee, warned that ''governmental-political'' intrusion in IOC decision-making might actually enhance the IOC's apparent attraction to China's candidacy. In their view, the greatest achievement of the Barcelona games was their freedom from intervention by superpower international politics for the first time in decades.
At Barcelona, a lustrous tradition begun when 77 men from 14 nations gathered in Paris during the summer of 1894 to create a vehicle for bringing together the youth of the world in athletic competition was again honored. These founding fathers of the Olympic Movement were educators and members of peace movements. None regarded national virtue as a practical precondition for participation in the Olympic movement. The most they expected was a commitment to join in a search for world peace and understanding.
The July 15 hearing recalled this history and aired opinions on the interests and treatment of individual athletes and possible relationships between competitive sports and the broad moral purposes of mankind. Since the mere possibility of China's candidacy was provocative, it seemed odd that no one showed any interest in the possibility that an ethical code different from our own that dealt with individual rights, duties and values could still be moral.
Confucian moralism permeates more than 2,000 years of Asian history. Confucian philosopher-historians explained the loss of moral legitimacy by successive Chinese dynasties without ever using our human rights terminology. And no one at the hearing asserted the irrelevance of such reflections.
What did appear to be relevant was that ''Tiananmen'' had become a code word signifying China's ''barbarous indifference to human rights and dignity.'' Television had furnished irrefutable verification that the ''monsters of Tiananmen had killed their own children.'' Yet Americans easily brushed aside the beating of Rodney King as merely ''an episode.'' The Chinese wonder how anyone could believe that the Tiananmen ''episode'' encapsulates the attitudes of an entire country.
China specialists at the World Bank are dumbfounded by how widely the ''Tiananmen'' obsession blocks out reality. From the bank's files emerges a profile of an economic system serving 1.1 billion people being transformed from the autarkic egalitarianism Mao into a Deng-sponsored system of market orientation that doubled national productivity between 1979 and 1989. Unique among developing countries, the first beneficiaries of Chinese market orientation were the poorest of China's rural poor. History shows nothing to match the scale and nature of that wealth-bestowing transformation.
The tragedy of ''Tiananmen'' did not undo China's modernization. After 1989, modernization became more even far-reaching and rapid despite colossal setbacks caused by both man and nature. For example, to serve the common good, inflation first had to be controlled. Then in the spring of 1991, China experienced its worst floods of the century. Ten million people were left homeless and 2,000 fatalities were reported by the Chinese press. Yet the flood victims were resettled before the winter. The Chinese authorities acted out of humanitarian necessity, indifferent to niceties of rights, duties or correct procedure. The nature and progression of the disaster and its management were documented by the Center for Disaster Relief of the United Nations in Geneva.
During the spring of 1992 I traveled China. To my amazement, I discovered a culture more mobile, less fearful and more optimistic than at any previous time this century. ''Socialism with Chinese characteristics'' cloaked the most sudden, most productive and most untidily ''democratic'' commitment to market orientation in history.
Yet the American media focus on the ''aging cabal'' in Beijing and the self-serving complaints of a small community of ''dissidents'' both within China and abroad.