The efflorescence of creativity that foreign visitors will see in Beijing in August is not a challenge to Party control. It enables that control. The lively art and music scenes, colorful newsstands, crowded bookstores, stylish clothing, experimental dance, innovative architecture, sexy advertising, rampant consumerism, luxurious housing, ebullient schlock, even the considerable scope for academic inquiry: this lightly patrolled free zone is not the antithesis but the twin of the permanent crackdown on the political frontier, where the few who insist on testing the regime are crowded to the cultural margin and generally ignored. In this sense the energetic new Chinese art that has caught the imagination of Western buyers, with its pictorial irony and cynicism, repudiation of history, detachment from the world, and love of stunts, is not the challenge to those in power it is sometimes construed to be. Rather, it is a secret joke that the regime shares with the artists and their audience--part of a new social contract that allows the children to have their sly fun so long as the grown-ups run the house.
. . . .To be sure, the Olympics so far have not entirely worked out the way the planners intended. Beijing's bid in 1993 for the 2000 games was defeated at least partly on human rights grounds (although Frank Ching implies in China's Great Leap that bribery from the winning city of Sydney had more to do with it). It is not clear whether Beijing made explicit human rights commitments in its second bid. [. . .] Whether or not human rights were explicitly included, Beijing certainly made pledges that it would not fulfill.
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Nathan is the co-editor of How East Asians View Democracy (Columbia University Press). The full article, a book review, may be viewed here.