The “opening to the world” fallacy

Before we get to London 2012, we’ll have to suffer through what promises to be the rather chilling spectacle of Beijing 2008– one of those routines where the unreliable elements are shipped out of town, the decaying housing is hidden behind brightly-painted walls and the citizens are ordered to be proud and patriotic for the cameras.

When Beijing was chosen to host the next Olympics, there were those who claimed this “opening to the world” would help promote democracy in China. Among them was Germany’s Interior Minister Otto Schily, who said, “I am convinced that the Olympic Games will have a positive effect on China’s democratic development.” I hope he’s right, but anyone familiar with 20th-century history knows how much of a positive effect the 1936 Berlin Olympics had on Germany’s democratic development.

In fact, as Harold Meyerson suggests in Wednesday’s Washington Post, any democratic revolution in China is far more likely to result from the activities of the Chinese people themselves. And the hundreds of unreported and underreported labor struggles in that country are building toward such a revolution.

…Already a number of American businesses there, Wal-Mart first and foremost, are moving their contractors’ factories from China’s more developed southern coast to even lower-wage and less-regulated inland regions. (It may help to think of these corporations as new-age versions of the legendary hooligans of the Old West: When the law comes to Dodge, they strike out for the next boomtown where there’s still no sheriff.)

But China is home to more labor strife than any country in the world. What will happen when these illegal strikes grow even more widespread, when workers demand democracy and the right to form unions? In the next iteration of Tiananmen Square, will American business and its apologists side with the tanks or the man standing in the street to block them?

A good question.