Olympic Mettle: Business, Civil Society, and Politics During the Beijing Games

May 29, 2008

An expert panel discusses the ethics of engagement with China in the context of the Olympics. What lasting positive or negative effects, if any, will the games have on China?


DEVIN STEWART: Welcome to Workshops for Ethics in Business. We are talking about the Beijing Olympics today. I just want to give you a quick introduction to our panelists.

We have Ian Buruma, Qi Qianjin, Minky Worden, and Bob Corcoran. There is a name tent in the corner of the room here. That's Thomas Crampton. We are going to use the magic of technology to project Tom Crampton up here from Hong Kong to talk about the Internet reaction to the Beijing Olympics. He will be number two in the line of panelists today. That video is actually prerecorded. He put that together. You can watch the whole video on our YouTube channel and on our Web sites.

The recent natural disasters are just one of many challenges or obstacles China has faced. There is some superstition about this in China. Mr. Qi and I were talking about this a bit beforehand. Of course, on our blog, there is a nice summary that we put up about some of the blogging going on in China about all the disasters and challenges.

I talked to one China-based scholar recently, and he said, "The Olympics are already a failure." He gave me this list. The Chinese people have been embarrassed by their government's about-face toward Tibet, for example. They have been embarrassed about the global criticism. There are just a lot of issues here. Also there is what some people call a nationalistic sentiment online and the protests themselves.

I think it's a bit too early to judge. It hasn't even started yet. We are basically starting from the point of, let's take a balanced look at this. Like the French Revolution, it's way too early to judge, particularly since it hasn't happened yet. Today we are going to ask three basic, general questions:

  • What is the international relations perspective or case for engagement? I personally think that engagement is a better starting point than isolation as a way to create positive change in the world. I think that's basically common wisdom in most of the thinkers in international affairs.
  • What are the responsibilities of corporations, but also of governments? What are the responsibilities of various actors involved with this major event, just in terms of fostering development and human rights at the same time? A big, big debate: Should development, strictly speaking, be put above human rights? A very provocative question and something that we should think about somewhat neutrally. It's difficult to be not emotional about these issues, but I think we should try to be as balanced as possible.
  • Finally, what have the various actors in China learned so far?

I'm going to start with Ian Buruma. Ian Buruma is an author and journalist. In 2003, he was named the Henry Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He wrote something recently in The New Yorker which got my attention as well on a lot of these big questions.

WNYC radio asked Ian, "What does it mean to be a professor of democracy?" I think Ian said, "It's whatever I want it to be." That's great.

I'm going to put it to Ian first, and then we are going to go to Tom, who will appear over here, and then go down the line. We will have a few minutes left for questions and answers.

Thank you very much, Ian.

Ian Buruma

Ian BurumaIAN BURUMA: Thank you for that kind introduction.

I think we can all agree that engagement is better than isolation. I think that question has been adequately dealt with.

The question that remains, though, is whether the Olympic Games are the best way to engage countries. I would like to start with one great myth about the Olympic Games, assiduously promoted by the International Olympic Committee, as well as, often, host governments for the Games, which is that the Games are not political, that sports and politics are somehow separate things and shouldn't mix and aren't mixed, and so on.

In fact, the Olympic Games were political from the very beginning. When the Baron de Coubertin first had the thought of Olympic Games in the late 19th century, it was sparked by the defeat of France in the war against Prussia in 1871. He was deeply worried about the decadence of his country, and what he wanted, in his rather curious phrase, was to "rebronze" the French by stimulating games, sports, and so on. What he had in mind—he was an Anglophile—was British public school education, competitive sports and games, and so on. He thought that this would restore the virility of France.

By extension, by reviving the Olympic Games—which, of course, started in Athens in Ancient Greece, but hadn't been held for centuries—it would help to restore the health of other nations as well. This, of course, was a very 19th-century idea. After all, this was the time of world fairs and world expositions and so on—the idea that if nations got together in great jamborees, sports or otherwise, to show off their wares, nations would form friendships and people would get along better and there wouldn't be wars and so on.

There was another political view at the time, expressed by a political opponent of de Cubertin, who was Charles Maurras, the founder of the Action Française, which was the extreme right-wing anti-republican, anti-Semitic organization which later evolved into—if "evolved" is quite the word—the Vichy government in World War II. Charles Maurras saw the Olympic Games as a typical example of Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism and individualism, and it was therefore to be deplored.

He actually, as a spectator, was there in Athens at the first modern Games, and he began to rethink his position. As he was watching this, he thought, "Well, maybe there is something to this. If the different races," as he would have put it, "are thrown together in competition like this, they will learn to hate each other, and this is a good thing in a world of Darwinian struggle," and so on and so forth.

So political it always was. The idea of using the Games as a way to show the virility of the nation, which, of course, is a Darwinian, 19th-century notion, still has its appeal, especially, I would say, in countries run by authoritarian governments. I don't think it's for nothing that the United States, to my mind, is the only democratic country which actually consistently does well in the Olympic Games. Most other democracies do not usually win a huge number of gold medals, nor do they set enormous store by it, unlike, say, the now-defunct German Democratic Republic, which—always with the help, perhaps, of drugs that turned women into men—did very well in Olympic Games and showed their national virility off, as did the Soviet Union and other autocratic countries. Democracies do less well.

What about China? In some ways, China and the Olympic Games were made for each other. Even though China no longer, I would argue, is a typical communist country. In many ways, it's now a kind of hybrid and there is very little socialism or Marxism left in the system there. But it is, in some ways, still, like all communist countries, rooted very much in 19th-century ideas and 19th-century institutions. Marxism may have disappeared, but other 19th-century elements are still there. That includes this almost fetishistic love of building big stadiums, grand infrastructure projects, parades with lots of flags, and so on, and the idea of national virility, which I think, in Chinese nationalism today, does still play a role—the idea that we are living in a Darwinian struggle of nations in which you have to be strong and show that you are strong; otherwise, you won't survive.

The IOC and China, I think, understand each other on this issue, and also on the myth, which benefits both, that politics and sports, or the Olympic Games, are two separate things and don't mix, and it's really all about sports, which, of course, it isn't.

The Olympic Games, if you look at the history of them, have had a positive effect and sometimes a negative effect. The de Coubertin vision that if you organize international games, people will get along better and so on—I'm not sure about that getting-along part, but it has had positive effects and also negative effects.

The main negative Games, of course, were the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, used by the Nazi government as a kind of showcase to show the glories of the Third Reich, with the complicity of the IOC [International Olympic Committee], who did everything to make Germany look good at the time. And there was something rather pathetic in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 1936, when the quavering voice of the frail and old Cubertin was played on the public address system, talking about "the importance was not to win or lose, but to take part," as Hitler and Goering and others were sitting there gloating after hearing the Horst-Wessel-Lied and so on played on the same PA system just before. They were certainly interested in winning and not particularly interested in taking part.

So that's a negative consequence of using the Olympic Games to showcase a country. But there were positive ones. I think of two, actually, in postwar Asia.

One was the 1964 games in Tokyo, which put the postwar Japanese democracy back on the map. It made Japan into a respectable member of the international community once again. It showed that the lessons of World War II—if you want to put it in such a highfalutin way—were learned. I think it was a very good thing for Japan and, by extension, possibly for the world.

The other example, of course, is South Korea. There is a certain misunderstanding about this. Those who say that the Olympic Games can have a very positive political effect often suggest that the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 somehow heralded democracy in South Korea, which was not the case. The South Korean government had already conceded to having general elections for their next government. What was true is that the Olympic Games gave the democrats in South Korea, but also the United States and others who had clout in that country, the leverage to put pressure on the government to keep its word. The government knew that if they didn't keep their word, the Olympic Games would be in jeopardy, and that would be a severe loss of face for the Republic of Korea. So it did help, but indirectly.

But I think it was a positive thing. Just as it sort of showcased Japan as a country that had turned a new leaf, the same was true about South Korea after, when the military regimes had come to an end.

Will it have a similar positive effect on China? I was quite skeptical and, to some extent, still am, because I don't think it's going to create huge political change in China. To some extent, one could even argue— the parallel has been drawn by people between the Games in China and 1936. I don't think that's quite fair. The Chinese government may have a lot wrong with it, but it's not the Nazi regime by a long chalk.

The nervousness, I think, of China to make this a success, to make this a flawless success, to show China off to the world in its best light, I think, has led to, perhaps, a greater atmosphere of oppression than might have been the case without the Olympic Games. I think, just as the tidy housewife likes to clean out the front parlor when she has particularly honored guests and is terrified of any speck of dust showing, in a similar way the Chinese government is going to be very careful to keep all domestic dissent well out of sight of the rest of the world—anything that could disrupt the good order of the Games. This is not necessarily a good thing as far as politics and the state of human rights are concerned in China.

But I think there has been already one positive side, which has come out of a tragedy, or two tragedies. (This will be my concluding remark.) I think, with the combination of the criminal ineptitude of the way that the Burmese government has dealt with the cyclone in Burma and the fact that China knows, particularly after the demonstrations in Tibetan areas and others, that the world's eyes are on China, it really is doing its best, more than it ever has done in recent history, to deal with this catastrophe in Sichuan, not in the least in the way that it has opened up the tragedy to the Chinese press. There are reasons why this is happening. The Chinese press—not politically, but as far as these kinds of things are concerned—has already opened up considerably.

I think the combination of the world's attention and what happened in Burma has actually had a stimulating effect on the Chinese government in dealing with this problem in an open and energetic manner. So at least we can say that, before the Games have begun, there is one positive sign that it can have a good effect. Let's hope there will be more.

Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Ian. I'm a huge fan of yours.

Some people might know that my background is Japan. Ian is known as one of the foremost thinkers on Japan. As usual, you are displaying an incredible grasp of nuance. It's just great to have you here.

We are going to turn it over to an experiment. Thomas Crampton worked very hard in Hong Kong to put together a little video presentation, which we will show an excerpt of, not the whole thing. As you can see, his name tent is right over here. Please give us a minute to dim the lights and turn on the video. He's sleeping now, so we are not going to do a Q&A. It's quite late in Hong Kong.

Thomas Crampton

Thomas CramptonTHOMAS CRAMPTON: (Via video) I'm very pleased to join the Carnegie Council this afternoon from Hong Kong, the borrowed studios from Next Media here in Hong Kong, to speak to you a little bit about nationalism, the Olympics, and what we have been seeing going on in China.

First, I would like to start with a disclaimer. I'm not French. I don't work for Carrefour. I'm not a Chinese nationalist. I don't even speak Chinese very well, though I am studying it. I have been a reporter for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, based out of Asia for many years.

What I'm going to be doing is looking at this issue from the perspective of new media, what's different. But before we do that, let's look at what's not different.

This is not the first time that we have seen anti-foreigner sentiments in China—looking back to the Boxer Rebellion, of course. This is not even the first time that we have seen anti-foreigner sentiment online. A few years back, there was a computer game which was suspected of having a rising sun in the middle of a temple. Chinese game players were annoyed about this. This is a zoom-in from that supposed rising sun. They began protesting about it. They started online avatars, bringing together this anti-Japanese protest, until you could actually fill up the entire game with the anti-Japanese crowds.

Angry chat rooms are nothing new in the online world. This time, with the anti-foreigner sentiment, following the torch rally, we had a lot of similar sorts of things going on. We had, in the mainstream media, arguments on television about how to organize the Carrefour boycotts. Indeed, this time around, we have also had video games involved. This is a video game on QQ, which is one of the largest online social networks in the world, in fact, the largest one in China. This is a game called "Concealing Drugs Is Bad."

Why is this of interest? The evil character in this game is called Zang-du, which has an uncannily similar sound to "Tibetan independence." So you go out and you try to kill Zang-du in this game. If you win in this game, this is what appears. If you manage to kill this character called "Tibetan independence," you get a Chinese flag.

Some of the other things that went on in this current environment included the hacking of Carrefour's Web site. That's not surprising. Carrefour, of course, said that their Web site was under some repair. But what has happened new in this whole environment in China is Web 2.0. Let's take a quick look at what has been going on in the Web 2.0 area.

Here are some of the more famous members of the Web 2.0 in China, just a quick taste of them. (A video was shown.)

These are the Dorm Street Boys, who, as you can see, do covers for the Backstreet Boys.

This is getting into a zone that I call China's Web 2.0 propaganda. It's basically user-generated propaganda put together by individuals in China. This is not done by the government. They are showing sentiments that are felt rather strongly by many Chinese.

Here is another one. This is what I would call hip-hop propaganda. (A video was shown.)

That's what I call the hip-hop version of the user-generated propaganda.

Very quickly, I will just say a couple of things about what's going on here. Why has the Internet become this place where the nationalism is brought together in such a strong way?

One interesting factor is that people don't trust the state media, the mainstream media. While the mainstream media might be dying in the West due to the rise of digital media, in China the mainstream media is censored, government-controlled. A survey done a couple of years ago by a public relations firm, Edelman, found that people trusted much more things that they read on the Internet than things that they read in the mainstream media. This would give tremendous amounts of more credibility to campaigns saying that the person running Carrefour had given money to the Free Tibet Foundation.

Added to this trust for what's happening online is the people's relationship to the online world. In China we are now talking about the generation that has come out of the one-child era, the one-child policy, fully. This is the digital generation. They have few cousins. They have no siblings. There is a loneliness. There is a tremendous sense of loneliness and separateness, which gives things that happen online much more power, much more strength. They really hold onto that much more, which gives rise to the way in which it can be used to channel passions and bring these passions around.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks very much for listening to that, and thanks to Thomas Crampton, who is probably well known to you. To anyone who follows Asia, Thomas Crampton is a very well-respected journalist, a former journalist of The New York Times and IHT. He put that together for us yesterday, so it's pretty current. If you would like to see the whole video, you can go to our YouTube channel or our Web sites.

We are going to turn it over to Mr. Qi Qianjian. Maybe he wants to comment on some of what we have seen already. Mr. Qi is a counselor and policy analyst at the Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations. He has also served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China and the Chinese embassies in Kuwait and Israel.

I believe Mr. Qi is going to talk about China's experience so far with the Olympics and also with the recent tragedies in China.

Thank you very much for coming, Mr. Qi.

Qi Qianjin

Qi QianjinQI QIANJIN: Thank you, Devin. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to be here and have the opportunity to exchange views and introduce information about China.

As Devin mentioned, this year will be a special year for China. We face many challenges and opportunities. The first challenge is a natural disaster, the earthquake. So first let me introduce some information about the earthquake.

In the afternoon of May 12, a major earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan, a province in southwest China. This is considered the strongest earthquake in the last 50 years. So far, about 20,000 people have died, and the death toll is estimated to rise to about 50,000.

After the earthquake took place, the Chinese government responded very quickly. Our premier flew for the first time to the Sichuan province. The whole nation mobilized about 100,000 troops to Sichuan. So far the rescue process is now under way. The Chinese people are in sympathy with the victims of the earthquake. We have confidence that we will overcome this disaster.

Because today's topic is about the China Olympics, I think it means also that this year is special for China. Because of the Olympics, we face challenges and opportunities. Yes, the Chinese people welcome the Olympic Games held in China, and 1.3 billion Chinese people—indeed, the people of the whole world—are eagerly looking forward to this great event.

As our premier, Mr. Wen Jiabao, said about the Olympic Games in this year's annual session of the National People's Congress, the Chinese people are most sincere in their desire to host a successful Olympic Games. The 1.3 billion Chinese people will greet visitors from all over the world with smiles, and their goodwill will be fully reciprocated by the people of the whole world.

As you can see, today's Chinese people are embracing the world with their sincere smiles and are fully prepared to welcome guests from abroad. Certainly, because of the natural disaster, the earthquake, I believe our government will make some amendments for some process like partial aid, but we are confident that we will use all of our efforts to host the Olympic Games successfully.

As people mentioned on the Hong Kong broadcast, some events happened before the Olympic Games. Indeed, it was shocking for us to see some people attempting to sabotage the relay of the Olympic torch. The torch, we think, is a symbol of a shared dream of humanity. So this sabotage acts, we think, as a humiliation to the Olympic spirit.

Ladies and gentlemen, because I think most people have not the opportunity to visit China, I want to introduce to you some information. What is a truer picture of China?

This year is also special for us because we are celebrating this year the 30-year anniversary of pursuing a policy of reforming and opening up. Since 1978, when Mr. Deng Xiaoping took power, he changed China from a closed nation to opening up and reforming. Opening up and reforming means that we open up to the outside world. We pursue a free-market system. We welcome foreign investment. We try to integrate into the international system. Reforming means we will change gradually our political and social system.

So far China has succeeded in reforming and opening up. Let me give you some information and facts.

First, China has made enormous progress in economic, social, and cultural development. China's economy has been growing at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past 30 years. This is indeed remarkable. China's per-capita GDP is now 17 times larger than that of the early years of the reform and opening up. China now is the fourth-largest economy and the third-largest trading nation, compared with its 15th and 32nd places, respectively, 30 years ago.

It is particularly worth mentioning that since reforming and opening up, China has reduced its rural poor people by 220 million, making itself the only nation in the world that has halved the number of the poor population ahead of the schedule set by the UN Millennium Development Goals. World Bank status shows that China can take credit for 67 percent of achievements made in the past 25 years in a global fight against poverty. I think these achievements are really remarkable because, as you know, China has the biggest population in the world. We have a large number of poor people.

So China has successfully lifted 20 percent of humanity out of poverty in a short span of 30 years. This is not only a tremendous achievement in the history of China's development, but also a significant contribution to the maintenance of world peace, the development of mankind, and the protection of human rights.

China is now taking new steps to build a harmonious society. A harmonious society should be, first of all, a society that practices democracy and the rule of law. Secondly, it must be a society that promotes equity and justice.

We have made progress in economic development, but still China is not a perfect country and we still have many problems, like inequity in the economy, a large gap between the rich and poor, and severe pollution problems—and so many problems. But we try to do our best to resolve these problems.

Because I am a diplomat and I work in the foreign policy sector, I want to say that China has changed and reformed our foreign policy in the last 30 years. As you know, before 1978, when China was in the Cultural Revolution, we closed our relations to the outside. Sometimes we supported revolutions outside. We tried to export our ideology. We tried to destroy capitalism. But since 1978, we have changed a lot of our foreign policy. We have stopped, totally, exporting our ideology. Even if today's China model has been successful in our quest, we never expect to export our model. We think it's just valuable for China, not valuable for the outside world.

So in China now, foreign policy's major role is integrating into the international system. China's role in the international system used to be rejected, but now most countries welcome China's involvement and hope to see China play a big role in the international system. As a member of over 100 intergovernmental organizations and a party to nearly 300 international treaties, China is an important stakeholder and plays an increasingly active and constructive role in the international system. We will work with other countries to ensure that the international system will work in a way that is more just and equitable.

As a responsible country, China is fulfilling its responsibilities and obligations on its own initiative. China has carried out more than 2,000 aid programs for over 110 countries and regional organizations. China has reduced and canceled debts of 44 underdeveloped countries, totaling over 20 billion Chinese yen. It also plays a positive role in meeting global challenges, such as climate change, environmental problems, and energy security.

I have to stop here. I'm ready to answer questions if you have them. Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Mr. Qi, thank you very much.

I think what we can take away from that is to think about this in context and perspective. I think Minky and Bob are both going to give some of that.

We were really fortunate to have Minky Worden here about a week and a half ago. She spoke at Nick Rizopoulos's Foreign Policy Roundtable and presented her book. I guess it was the day before it was published, which was really exciting. The book is called China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges, published by Seven Stories in May 2008.

Minky is Media Director of Human Rights Watch. She works there with the world's journalists, who help them cover crises, wars, human rights abuses, and critical developments in more than 70 countries worldwide. From 1992 to 1998, Minky lived and worked in Hong Kong as the chief of state for Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee.

Minky is going to talk about China's role in the world and the development of civil society in China. Minky, thank you.

Minky Worden

Miny WordenMINKY WORDEN: Thank you.

I'm delighted to be here today, and especially to follow Mr. Qi, whose comments about China's evolving role in the world, and particularly the government's desire to be a responsible power—I think that's a very important and even guiding principle for China today. With the expectation of this power and this influence, also the expectation is created that China will play an increasingly positive role in circumstances where it can.

I want to take issue with Devin a bit in the framing of the civil society question, if I may. His question was, should development be put above human rights? I have to say that the answer to that is, of course, that human rights and development must go hand in hand, because it's a completely unsustainable situation if they do not.

I would like to pick up on Mr. Qi's theme of the great impact of the 30 years of change that we have seen in China since Deng Xiaoping's reform-and-opening policy. There is a lot of focus and attention on, and we are all here today to talk about, the Olympics, but possibly a more important anniversary for China and the Chinese people is that 2008 marks three decades since Deng Xiaoping's policy went into place. It has truly had a transformative effect on the country and, most importantly, on Chinese people's lives, the ordinary lives of people. They have much greater freedom in almost all aspects of their lives. The area that lags is, of course, human rights and political development. I would like to talk a little bit about that today.

There actually is a chapter in the book called "From Mao to Now." In addition to rhyming, I think it's a very good description of China. The great and interesting thing that we have seen, particularly in the last decade, is the development of what we would recognize as a true civil society. For those of you who don't what civil society means—it's kind of a nongovernmental organization term—it means groups that are not part of the government, who are working on interesting and cutting-edge topics, like the environment, religious groups, obviously human rights groups, and other nongovernmental organizations. The press is also a very important part of civil society. In China there is the government media, but also there are, increasingly, a number of very vibrant publications inside China that do investigative journalism and get what we would know as "scoops."

I would like to talk a little bit about this progress in the context of the Olympics and how this has come about. I would like to step back for one minute to 1989, to Tiananmen Square. I think it's important to do that because Tiananmen Square will be part of the venue for the Olympics. There will be parades. It will be a center of activity. It will certainly play a very prominent role on television.

This is a part of recent Chinese history that is largely not dealt with. We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and there are still people imprisoned from that era. One of the very interesting proposals on the table is that the Chinese government should put in place a so-called "Olympic pardon" that would have the capacity to release many of these long-serving prisoners. Some of them are in prison for the crime of counterrevolution, a crime that's no longer even on the Chinese government's statute books.

So that is a very interesting proposal that has been made by John Kamm, the chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation and a contributor to China's Great Leap.

In 1989, the Chinese government really faced a great challenge. There was international isolation. There was not a lot of contact with the outside world, and what contact there was, was not positive. Deng Xiaoping came up with an idea to re-engage the world and to find a way for China to reach out and engage with the international community. That was to apply to host the Olympics. In 1990, he decreed that China would apply to host the Olympics. That first bid happened in 1993.

That bid was unsuccessful. The Games went to Sydney. One of the major reasons why that bid was lost was due to the fact that it was so soon after Tiananmen Square. It really came down to the question of human rights.

When the Chinese government came back to the bidding table in 2001, there was a new element to the proposal, and that was human rights. In the official bidding document and in the speeches, Chinese government officials said, essentially, "If you give us the Games, we will hope to improve human rights." There were very specific promises that were made, for example, in relation to press freedom. I would like to talk a little bit more about that and the possible impact of that.

Journalists, for example, were told that they would have full freedom to report. That's very significant. There will be an estimated 30,000 journalists who are fanning out across China. A number of these journalists are sports reporters and will be covering the Games themselves, but a number of others are going to be roaming across the country and reporting ways that China has changed in the last 30 years.

That is a very significant development.

I would like to say that the earthquake has been a terrible tragedy, but it has also been, I think, almost a seismic transitional moment for China in terms of press freedom. There has been greater coverage, I think, of this natural disaster than any other in recent history in China. During the SARS crisis or during the bird flu epidemic, the impulse—and I think everyone can understand it—was to close down and to stop information from coming out. But during the earthquake, there has been, I think, a very laudable and very positive development of maximizing the amount of information that is available about the earthquake to Chinese people. It could have the effect, in this case, of saving lives. I think that is a very important thing.

The Chinese government's response, of course, compares extremely favorably to the response from the government in Myanmar. That was about 10 days before the earthquake. Certainly before the earthquake happened in China, Human Rights Watch and other organizations were pressing ASEAN countries, India, and also China, to help convince the Myanmar leaders to open up and to not divert the aid to the military instead of the civilian population.

I do think that the Chinese government had an opportunity to see how not to handle a major national catastrophe. In fact, it compares very favorably to that.

A few words about press freedom in China. With all of these journalists coming to China and with the explicit promise to actually allow full freedom for journalists to report, it really creates a wonderful opportunity. In fact, the Chinese government, as part of its commitment to the International Olympic Committee, even went so far as to change its law on press freedom. In the past, if you were a foreign correspondent working in Beijing, if you wanted to interview anybody, you needed to get Foreign Ministry permission to do that. That was a very onerous and not very popular law. It was also ignored quite a bit, which meant that journalists went around breaking the law all the time, which is also not a very good thing to do.

In January of 2007, the new what are called "temporary regulations" on media freedom went into effect. This creates a system where foreign journalists, in fact, have a lot more freedom than Chinese journalists do. This law does not apply to Chinese journalists.

I think one of the important possible reforms and maybe durable positive outcomes from the Olympics could be if these freedoms are both extended—right now the new press freedoms expire in October of 2008. But if these freedoms could be made permanent and extended beyond the Olympics, that would have a very positive effect. It would probably increase the amount of positive press coverage the government gets, because journalists who are not obligated to get permission for interviews may give a more positive view. But if these freedoms could be extended to Chinese journalists, on the one hand it would eliminate this quite unfair two-tier system that exists now in China, and also have the effect of liberating the Chinese media.

You have already seen from Tom Crampton's video the many interesting and lively things that are available on the Internet today in China. It's certainly the case that there is much greater scope for freedom in the media.

The self-interested argument that I would make to the Chinese government is, of course, if you have gumshoe investigative reporters, Chinese reporters, who are uncovering things like poisoned pet food or corruption scandals, then those things will have much less of a potential to explode in a large negative way in the international press. You could actually use the domestic Chinese media to surface a lot of the problems, which would have the effect of enhancing social stability. ("Social stability," like "responsible power," is one of those phrases that you will hear very often from Chinese leaders.)

The session today is also supposed to address the role of corporate sponsors in the Olympics. I would say that we have really about two months to go before the launch of the Olympic Games. It's August 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m., which is a very lucky day in the Chinese calendar. The Olympic corporate sponsors—Bob Corcoran is a representative of them—along with the International Olympic Committee and world leaders, and even people who will attend the Games, I think have a unique opportunity between now and the opening of the Olympic Games to present a positive case to the Chinese government for why, for example, it would be important to extend press freedoms.

The Olympic top sponsors, particularly the ones that are in the media or information technology area—and that would be GE and NBC, Lenovo, Microsoft, which is an Olympic supplier—are quite uniquely positioned, because they are paying for the Games, to take up these issues in a very positive way. You work in a media company, and it is a unique opportunity to show how press freedom works in the United States and around the world, and why it is a positive thing, and also a sign of a confident government that is really prepared to take its place on the world stage.

DEVIN STEWART: You want me to take care of that now?

MINKY WORDEN: Yes. [Laughter]

Let me address Bob first. I can anticipate Bob's response. He might say General Electric is an engineering company. I'm not sure if he will take that up or not. In a sense, we are all media companies as well. Carnegie Council is a media outfit.

We are very lucky to have Bob Corcoran here. He is very gracious to come, as a major Olympic sponsor. I think he is going to talk about GE's experience in China and the idea of introducing human rights principles in the corporate context.

Just a bit about Bob. In December of 2003, Bob Corcoran was named Vice President of Corporate Citizenship for General Electric and President of the GE Foundation. Previously, he was GE's Chief Learning Officer and a 20-plus-year veteran of the company. Bob has a very good perspective, a deep perspective, of GE's operations. I will turn it over to Bob Corcoran.

Thank you very much.

Robert Corcoran

Robert CorcoranROBERT CORCORAN: Thank you.

It would be very rare for me to be somewhere where people didn't know who GE is, even in the remotest parts of China. But just a refresher, we are a pretty big company. We have 330,000 employees around the world. Last year our sales and revenues were about $175 billion. That's big by any measure.

We have 6 million individual shareholders in GE. That means we are the largest publicly held company by shareholders in the world. So we have an enormous amount of money invested by 6 million people every day that we have to take good stewardship for. We have a primary role to make money.

So unlike folks on this stage, that is our job. That is what we view as being one of three parts of being a responsible company:

    • The first part is to have a viable business plan that has growth and sustainability and protects the assets of shareholders. So, first, simply make money.

    • Second is to do that ethically and comply with all laws, regulations, policies of the company, et cetera.

    • Third, to not really be satisfied with complying with the law, but go beyond the law where we have an opportunity to make a difference on broader issues.

So, simply: Make money, make a difference, and make it ethically.

As a company, we put in place a policy on human rights about a year and a half ago. Very simply, it was after we had published a corporate citizenship report talking about social, economic, and environmental bottom line. We held some stakeholder dialogues with multiple kinds of stakeholders—human rights organizations, labor rights, environmental, intergovernmental, things like that.

One of the directors of Amnesty International stood up towards the end and said, "We studied you guys. You're not bad. You're not on our bad list. The problem is, though, that you don't have a human rights policy."

I said, "Well, we have practices and values and little pieces here and there."

He said, "Look, you view your growth as a company coming primarily from the developing world over the next decade. That's where all the human rights issues are. I guarantee you, if you have a problem—and you will—we will be after you because of your failure to have a policy to guide your people, et cetera."

Not being the slowest in the class, we figured out that this was a good thing to do. Although our practices were good, this was a case where our practices exceeded our policy. So we worked and engaged three multiple combinations of human rights groups to advise and help us develop that policy.

We managed to satisfy most and disappoint all, because it never went far enough. But we put that in place and now have been working that through and operationalizing it. It's in our supply chain, which is factories, suppliers, things like that, and in the way we do business.

The practices we have are very clear. Around suppliers, which is the biggest area of risk for most multinationals—any good multinational typically has good practices around their own employees. If you are on payroll, clearly there is a long enough history, clearly there is a big enough compliance issue that that's very strong. But in the supply chain—suppliers around the world—we have thousands and thousands of suppliers. For years we have had a supplier code of conduct that not only focused on quality of goods, but on environmental compliance, health and safety requirements, labor hours, working age, core labor standards. The ILO core labor standards have been part of our practices for a long time. We have also included, however, freedom of association, the responsible bargaining for organizations, and a number of other elements from core human rights.

We have over 450 deeply trained auditors that travel around the world auditing suppliers. Last year alone, we conducted over 2,300 supplier audits and assessments, many of them multi-day assessments, unannounced, onsite.

We kicked out 150 suppliers for failure to comply. We use a red/yellow/green stoplight approach on the audits. Suppliers have an opportunity to conform, and that includes human rights, labor rights, overtime provisions, health and safety, occupational health, et cetera.

In April of this year, we had a nice little opportunity to reconfirm that. Amnesty found no problems with us a couple of years ago when they talked to us. In all sorts of other practices, we get consistently high grades by other audits. In January, we were called by the Associated Press for comment on a just-released research report by an NGO on despicable practices in a GE supplier in China, called Xiamen Topstar Lighting. It makes compact fluorescent bulbs.

The report, which we had not seen, alleged egregious violations of overtime, the state-mandated and locally provincial-mandated overtime provisions willfully ignored, employees who were docked a day's pay for being 15 minutes late, employees not given safety gloves to work with the materials, people not trained in the awareness of mercury, which is part of any fluorescent light on the planet. Workers were routinely infected, cut. They had mercury in their systems. They were abused by supervisors, paid below minimum wage—a number of things like that.

Within two hours, we had three auditors on planes, two from China and one from the United States, for an unannounced audit. After ten days of investigation with up to ten GE auditors, what we found was what we knew was there. We found a factory that is large, but is relatively new—it's only about ten years old—cleaner and better than most of our American factories in the lighting business, which were built around 1908. The cleanliness, the hygiene, was up to standard.

In over 150 random interviews of employees, we found that all were aware of their work procedures. They could show us those. They could take us to those. They were very complimentary about the business. We had employees take off their work gloves to check for cuts, nicks, infections, things like that, which are frequent in a factory, and if they are not treated, you get infection, et cetera. No issues.

That response for us and that allegation—the AP story is out there; you can probably find it. Minky, I'm sure, has it categorized. It's probably in your bag here ready to throw at us. That's a bunch of crap, total crap, total fabrication.

Some of the pictures contained in the report, in this research report, were not even of the factory. We don't know what they were, but they weren't from within that factory. It's just not possible.

The factory had been audited by us in a multi-day, onsite audit less than four months prior. There were some minor findings around procedural things, on some practices, but none of the allegations contained in this research report.

A customer had on their own done a third-party audit of that same factory, because we supply them product. They in their contract say they want to audit some of our suppliers to keep their reputation clean. They had done that two months before and found nothing.

The research report from the NGO—the NGO is a company called Policy Matters, based out of Ohio. It has one full-time employee. Ohio is the place where GE's lighting business started during the kind of small proliferation of plants in the 1910s, 1920s, et cetera. There were 50 lighting manufacturers in Cleveland, in Ohio. The research report, which got great press coverage, a black mark on our permanent record, has no real basis in reality. I will quote Thomas Crampton: That was user-generated propaganda.

The challenge, when we look, as a responsible company, and when you look, as people looking after companies and looking at people, is, whom do you trust, and how do you trust them?

What occurs in the media—the sensationalism, sometimes—is not always fair. Sometimes it's accurate; sometimes it's not. The repetition of it can make it seem like fact.

In this case, for GE, we are proud of what we do and proud of that company. This report that we generated back to the audit report cost over $200,000 of somebody's money. That's not a big, bad company's money. We are big. It's not our money. This is a public company. This is owned by 6 million people. I would venture to say that many of you in this room today either own GE stock or you don't know that your pension funds are invested in GE stock or that the mutual funds you own, own shares of GE stock as part of the mutual fund. So this was $200,000 of your money that could have been returned to you as dividends or stock value spent chasing down some other allegations.

The process does work. But I will say that, as a company with strong practices, strong standards, and doing business ethically and responsibly, we are proud of what we do.

Our experience in China has actually been quite positive. We find, typically, pretty strong regulations on labor, on environment, on health, on pollution, et cetera. The challenge is actually around two things: enforcement and compliance, the capability, the capacity, to comply. In many small and mid-size vendors, they are willing to comply; they just don't know how. Frequently, they don't know where the resources are.

We have funded a number of different organizations to focus on building capacity in occupational health and in environmental safety and compliance. Don't forget, those are human rights. The right to be safe at work is a fundamental human right in UDHR [the Universal Declaration of Human Rights]. The right to be free from harassment in a work environment is a fundamental right. So don't just think about the right to protest or the right to do other things. The right to life, liberty, freedom, et cetera, is absolutely real.

The funding of some entities to create that capacity in China is a very positive bit of work that we do. With our suppliers, we think we float the boat and raise it a bit higher by having standards that are global and international.

The last piece I want to mention is that we are an Olympic sponsor. GE has become an Olympic sponsor, recently, only since 2005. We signed on for four Olympics, the two Winter Olympics in Torino and in Vancouver and the Summer Olympics in Beijing and in London. That's the extent of our sponsorship right now. Our agreement extends through 2012.

We are very, very proud to be an Olympic sponsor. We think it is the event in the world that does bring people together in some opportunity for peace and cooperation. I have been to the Olympics in Torino and seen different countries that typically don't talk to each other, whose people on the streets are carrying flags with pictures of each other and kidding about this hockey game that was about to take place in Central Europe.

Not to be naïve and not to be cynical, they are an opportunity for people to talk and see different cultures. There is an opportunity to look at a better world through the Olympics.

Is it political? Sure. Is it evil? No. Is it something to be done away with? We don't think so.

As an Olympic sponsor, what we try to do in regard to our role is conduct business fairly and ethically, and support the Olympic Games with the things that we do. It is a brand for us in trying to sell more and make more money, which is kind of the first principle of being a responsible company—we would never deny that—but also to do it ethically and do it in a principled way.

I will stop there to allow for all of us to take some questions over the next couple of minutes. Thank you.

Thank you very much, Bob.I would like to throw the floor open to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: My question is for Bob Corcoran. Bob, you spoke of encouragement or pressure coming from human rights groups for the corporate citizenship activities. Do you sense that the 6 million shareholders and your customers are providing similar encouragement or pressure and, as a consequence of that, are willing to pay the costs of doing corporate citizenship activities, as you were mentioning—the $200,000, et cetera? How do you see that evolving?

Some are; some aren't. It's that simple.

We had an investor resolution, a shareholder resolution, introduced at our shareholder meeting this year, and defeated, regarding the environment, which would seem to be less contentious than some of the things we talk about in terms of human rights, and regarding the fact that we had been consorting with environmental activists and NGOs, consulting with them in developing our responsible approach to reducing our carbon footprint, reducing our water consumption, making some commitments around that and helping to develop products that can reduce overall customer footprints. We had a shareholder resolution that got enough votes—it was 6 percent of the shareholders or something like that—saying we should not waste any money on that kind of stuff.

Our shareholders reflect the general view of society. You have some folks that will never accept anything on a particular topic and others who will accept nothing less than complete victory. A company has to operate somewhere in between.

We don't get elected every four years, so we can't retire and go away, as some government officials can. We don't get the luxury of focusing on a single 1-degree issue in a 360-degree operation. We have to take into consideration all of those factors—attraction and retention of employees, development and investment of our resources, high-quality products, satisfying customers, keeping shareholders satisfied, keeping the government satisfied, and doing all of this stuff. So we will always have the opportunity to disappoint everybody.

MINKY WORDEN: I would like to add—Bob didn't—that GE is a member of Mary Robinson's Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, one of 13 companies. I think GE joined in 2006.

There was a time, for example, when it was perfectly fine to degrade the environment. I think most companies today have come to see that that would not only be unethical, but would also be bad for business. I do think that one of the interesting trends is the acceptance that human rights principles and corporate social responsibility are core operating tenets.

I do believe that GE and all of the dozen so-called "top sponsors" are sponsoring the Olympics because they believe in Olympic principles, but I think also, to be frank, it is because of the China market—it's a major market. It's an opportunity to reach out to Chinese people with your products in a positive way. But it also confers an obligation to live up to those principles that you are pledged to integrate into your operations. The Olympics themselves are a test of those principles.

I would say also that it's a test of the International Olympic Committee as well. This is an organization that, as part of awarding China the Games, did seek and get pledges on human rights. I do think that it's important that the Chinese government has said that they will honor their pledges and will live up to that. That's a very important opportunity. I think those who are friends of China will find ways to express in a very positive way that this is an expectation and that this will indeed be the best way to hold a successful Olympics. There is no successful Olympics where there are human rights violations.

When you say that companies are now very well aware that it's unethical to degrade the environment and so on, I'm sure that's true of GE and of the sponsors of the Olympics. But if the primary responsibility of a company is to make money—which, of course, it should be—and you are competing in the developing world, which is going to be the arena and the testing place for all these principles, how do you deal with the fact that perhaps not all companies from Taiwan, Southeast Asia, even Japan, perhaps, do not put such store in environmental degradation and such things, and you have to compete with these people? Does this come into these calculations at all?

ROBERT CORCORAN: Sure. Not all companies in the United States agree with that. Not all customers agree with that. When we launched our commitment around environmentally responsible products, "ecomagination," the commitment to double our sales of environmentally responsible products in five years, we had customers furious at us, because we also chose to form a group called USCAP [U.S. Climate Action Partnership] to lobby the government, the White House and Congress in the United States, to put in caps on industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. Europe has done this. We have to work and compete in Europe. We think it is an unfair playing field here in the United States.

You can make a moral argument. You can make an environmental argument. You can make all sorts of stuff. But fundamentally, competitively, there should be a level playing field on that around the world.
We are not in the business of lobbying governments to put in regulations to increase our costs. But that's what we are doing. Some of our customers were furious at us for doing that, because that would raise their costs, and they haven't bought some equipment from us since.

There are tough decisions to make. This isn't an academic environment for us. Every day organizations choose to buy or not buy our products. We choose where to work, where to sell, where we don't do business and where we do, and how we do that. We think that that, as well as our citizenship and our human rights stances, has provided for us an advantage in doing business in the developing world. In Africa and some parts of Asia, in fact, our focus on transparency—we were an early Transparency International funder and helped create what is the TI scale today—there are countries we will not work in. There are many governments that look to GE. If they can buy something from GE, they can go to their populace and say there was no corruption in this deal.

So we think it's an advantage. Where we can compete, we compete. Where we can't, we don't try. We don't lower the standards.

DEVIN STEWART: I would like to follow up on that. There is this phrase that I find kind of emotional or provocative, this idea of Chinese ethics, or non-Western ethics or Eastern ethics. From a development economics point of view, I tend to think that values can shift and prices can change over time toward a more universal protection of human rights. That's a very hopeful and maybe a nonprofit way of looking at things.

But I would like to ask the panel if they see this establishment of norms or business standards as contentious and conflictual between the East and the West or between different cultures. Or are they a matter of economic development, period, where you are in your development path?

MINKY WORDEN: I will start off. I will also try to relate it back to the Olympics, if I may.

People often ask, what are the human rights standards? Are they different for some countries than for other countries? Especially when I'm speaking to a Chinese audience, I always try to make the point that the standards that Human Rights Watch or any other human rights organization holds China to are exactly the same standards that we hold the United States, the U.K., Russia, Venezuela to. It's the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It's that ultimate baseline of basic freedoms that we are talking about.

But there are also rights that are contained in the Chinese constitution. We find, for example, members of civil society and people who are doing business in China will often also look to domestic law inside China as a way of setting or enforcing those standards.

I think one of the reasons why, for example, Human Rights Watch has not supported a boycott of the Olympics is because we think that the Olympics are, because they are an international event, an opportunity to bring those international standards, in a very positive way, to China and to Chinese people, and to see that the expectation of adhering to international standards on human rights or corporate social responsibility is, in fact, an opportunity, not a negative thing. It's a very positive thing, this expectation that China, as a responsible power, will adhere both at home and abroad to those international standards.


QI QIANJIN: I want to give some comments on human rights. In my view of human rights, it is a concept with differences between the Eastern and Western countries. What is the benchmark of human rights? Who has the authority to judge other countries as good or bad in human rights? These are all concepts that are still discussed in international society, as well as in the United Nations.

For China's view, what do we think are the most important human rights for today's Chinese people? For the earthquake victims, what is the biggest human right? It's life. What is the biggest human right for people who live in China's Western regions on less than one dollar a day? It's to survive. They should be getting food and a house and assistance.

For China, our government's first priority is safeguarding the people's right to survive. Because we have pursued the reforming and opening up for only 30 years, we recognize that we are still not perfect in human rights. But we are progressing. We are improving our record of human rights.

So I think in human rights there still should be some room for discussion. But I want to say, we don't deny improved human rights and democracy. We are trying to do that as we pursue reforming. What is reforming? Reforming means changing our policy, changing our political and social and economic systems, gradually.

ROBERT CORCORAN: If I may just make an observation, 18 years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, there was an immediate change from a centrally planned communist economy and governance system to a free-market economy and a democratically elected government that resulted in unending misery for residents of the former Soviet Union, which has yet to fully recover and bring up the level of basic health, basic survival rates. In the past 30 years, it is remarkable, and it should be acknowledged, the numbers of people that have been raised above the UN poverty levels within China by a focus on economic growth and a focus on a bit more market-oriented economy.

If you look at recent Pew data, when surveyed, the Chinese are the most satisfied people in the world with the direction of their country and their lives, the direction they are taking. In the United States, in a recent ABC poll, 81 percent of Americans felt the country was on the wrong track. The Pew poll said 83 percent of Chinese were satisfied.

Are we really seeing enormous, egregious, horrible, universal human rights denial of 1 billion people in China or are we seeing the stresses and strains of an organization or a country that is working through evolving from some other kinds of systems and some other worlds? Is it jealousy, in some respects? On the part of many nations, it is. I would submit that two weeks ago, before the earthquake, there was an unhealthy rise of emotional reaction against China in the world's population, because of its economic strength.

So I think there needs to be a balanced and fair view of human rights, of progress, of the development of countries. The progressive realization of those rights, as contained in the UDHR and the covenants adopted, does make a difference.

MINKY WORDEN: Just to respond to that very quickly, I think there is a little bit of an implication that human rights organizations—it's not part of our mandate, for example, to prefer democracy over communism, over any other type of government. You would much more likely hear us to be talking about the rule of law and basic human rights and freedoms. We are actually agnostic toward a democratic or communist system. But our emphasis is on the exercise of rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by those baseline documents and also by the Chinese constitution.

So I should say, democracy is not part of our calculation, but the rule of law, which Chinese officials speak very often about the need to have, is. When you talk about some of the great problems in China today—for example, corruption—that's due to the fact that the party is above the law, so you can't have a true rule of law. But solving that problem by, for example, reforming the criminal procedure law and other reforms that are under way would go a long way to addressing some of the problems that even Chinese leaders have themselves noticed.

May I respond to that, just very quickly? That sounds a little bit implausible to me. If you use words like "freedom" and "the rule of law," you cannot completely delink that from democracy. If you talk about the rule of law, who makes the laws? If people don't have the right to vote for those who make their laws, it makes a huge difference. If, as you say yourself, the party is above the law, that's a political problem. To say, "Democracy doesn't enter into these calculations. That's not our concern. Our concern is just the rule of law," then you are talking a little bit like a Chinese government bureaucrat. That doesn't seem to me the language of somebody who is working for a human rights organization.

I'm equally touched, by the way, by a distinguished employee of a capitalist American corporation defending the virtues of the non-market economy. [Laughter]

I just mean it's not part of our mandate, strictly speaking. But, yes, the legal system and reforms would be—

These are political issues.

They are indeed.

DEVIN STEWART: Bob, were you ever a member of an organization? [Laughter]

ROBERT CORCORAN: I refuse to answer the question.

My comment is that the reality is that China has actually progressed more rapidly towards economic reforms that begin to look like free-market economies and embrace that, and has held separate its rule of governance and social governance, with directionally correct but slower reform rates.

QUESTION: The question I have is related to this discussion, which I think you have handled very well. Democracy is not the same thing as human rights. In fact, we have examples throughout history of democratic societies that were quite totalitarian.

The question that flows from that is to ask about the handling of dissent. It's interesting to contrast Hong Kong with the mainland in this regard. Both are China, and yet they handle dissent very differently. The question, I suppose, is—to put it rather prejudicially—why doesn't the Beijing government follow the good example of Hong Kong in handling the dissent around Tibet or whatever else comes up with the Olympics?


QI QIANJIN: I think a democracy is not a concept with differences. To my understanding, democracy is a means, not an end. Democracy in Western countries is regarded as elected government, directed by the people. But in my view, if the government does well in public management and gives prosperity to the society and the rise of people's living standard, it's a good government.

So even in China's case, even if we are not a so-called democratic government, our government mainly represents most people's interests. Since 30 years ago, the Chinese government has paid more attention, shifting from revolution to a rise in people's lives. I believe that most people in China—90 percent—are happy and satisfied with the government.

So how can you say our government is not good government? Even though our government is not directly elected, we are not imperialism or a kingdom. Our leadership is a composition, with a group of members, not one person, not a king, not an emperor, not passing power from father to son, from husband to wife. We are a secular system.

IAN BURUMA: That's true, you are quite right; if the government does good things, there's nothing wrong. The problem begins if the government does something very bad. Then what can the people do to affect that, to stop the government from doing something bad, if they don't have the right to change their leadership? That is really the question.

QUESTION: I want to make a comment about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it represented a compromise between what was then known as the Soviet Union and the United States, between political and material rights. That debate continues to this day.

One of the Universal Declaration's rights is subsistence. Another is education. How do you reconcile these two where child labor may be needed to achieve another right?

It's a matter of priorities between the rights of the Declaration, it seems to me. It's certainly possible for the Chinese to argue that they are paying more attention to some of those rights than others, as every country must sort out those priorities itself in accord with its own interests and needs.

If anybody has a comment to follow up on that.

MINKY WORDEN: I return to my first point, which is that you cannot, over the long term, have development at the expense of human rights. In the example you gave of child labor, I'm sure you are not advocating child labor. But where there is child labor, then, for example, those are children who are not getting an education. So there is a cost there as well.

I would like to also respond to the question about protests. I think this will be with us for the Olympics. This has actually been the case at many previous Olympics. I imagine it will be at future Olympics. It is an event that is known very far in advance. There is the opportunity to plan. Those who have legitimate grievances are going to try to use the Olympics for protests.

We talked a little bit about civil society and China. The fact that there is a vibrant civil society in China today is a very positive development, largely over the last decade. There are lawyers who are willing to take on human rights cases at the risk of being harassed, detained, beaten, and jailed. There are environmental activists who will expose disasters.

One of the problems is that these people are often subject to harassment, detention, and an effort to silence them. I would say that it is not the mark of a strong and confident government that handles exposure of these things by trying to shut down the messenger.

I think the response and allowing the media to cover the earthquake has set a very positive example, particularly in relation to Burma. I do also believe that it is the spotlight of the Olympics and the fact that leaders in China know that the eyes of the world are on the country that has led to this as well—but also just a basic humanitarian impulse to get as much information to people as possible.

But I will say, the current lockdown of civil society in China, in Beijing, and human rights activists who have been sentenced to—it is clear that the Olympics coming to China, for a small number of people who have tried to protest and who are now in prison or under house arrest—that is a very negative development. One thing that would certainly improve China's image in the two months that remain before the Games would be to release some of these people who should not be in prison for exercising their legal rights.

Thank you. That actually is a perfect setup for my very last question for the other panelists. We focus on policy innovations in our online magazine.

Real quickly—Minky has pretty much put her position forward—for the other panelists, your biggest worry for the Olympics, in one or two sentences, and then maybe what should be done about it. Any last comments on that?

Representing my opinion, not my company, I think it would be WTO-style, aggressive, troublemaking protests aimed at disrupting and creating violence. I think that, if it occurs inside of China, will be met with very strong pushback. I think that would be very unfortunate. Unfortunately, that would go towards the instigators—it should, but, unfortunately, it won't—public opinion.

I would flip your question around. I have already talked about some of the concerns, particularly in regard to human rights around the Olympics. We haven't dealt that much with the hopes and the positive aspects of the Olympics.

One of the reasons that I did this book was the hope that the Olympics—the title, China's Great Leap, refers to the potential for the government to make that last leap—it has already made the economic leap—and the potential for reform in a number of major areas having to do with human rights, the rule of law, press freedom.

I would like to actually end on a positive note, to say that the people of China understand and want these things. I think, increasingly, the government is being responsive to that. The great hope is that if there, for example, are protests—which, by the way, is entirely predictable—they are handled in such a way that puts a very positive face forward to the world and sends a signal that China has really arrived as a confident and rights-respecting player on the world stage.


QI QIANJIN: I want to say, even though we face today many disasters and challenges for today's China, we still are confident about China. We will continue to carry out our policy of reforming and opening up.

IAN BURUMA: I would only say that it's very interesting that the four of us on this panel talk with great confidence about what the people of China think and want and like and don't like. I look forward to the day that the people of China themselves can actually express these things in an institutional and democratic fashion.

Thank you very much.

You may also like

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.

JUN 3, 2024 Podcast

The Intersection of AI, Ethics, & Humanity, with Wendell Wallach

In this wide-ranging discussion, Carnegie Council fellows Samantha Hubner & Wendell Wallach discuss how thinking about the history of machine ethics can inform responsible AI development.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation