Are the Olympics a Catalyst for China Reforms?

By hosting the Summer Games, China is putting itself at the center of the world's stage, a position some reformers would like to leverage to spark human rights improvements in the country. Can outsiders influence Chinese policy? Not without help, says HBS professor Tarun Khanna.
by Sean Silverthorne

With China hosting the Summer Olympic Games starting this week, some reformers see an opportunity to use the world stage as a platform to pressure the country's leadership into expanding social freedoms.

Judging by recent news, they don't have much to cheer about. China has reportedly backed off an earlier pledge to give reporters covering the Olympics unfettered access to the Web. At the same time, it accused the Bush administration of politicizing the Games after the United States criticized China's policies on human rights.

We asked Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna to put this all in perspective. His recent book, Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India Are Reshaping Their Futures—and Yours, published by Harvard Business Press, looks at the growing global influence of China and India as they emerge into economic superpowers.

Sean Silverthorne: Some reformers see the Olympic Games as an opportunity to advance freedom in China. What are the obstacles these reformers face?

Tarun Khanna: Many kinds of freedoms, particularly freedom to engage in economic activities, have increased dramatically in recent times; it's worth keeping that in mind first.

That said, there are several areas where there are differences of opinion between the authorities in China and others, inside and outside China, about norms for social and political discourse. The main obstacle, I feel, is that there is no mechanism to have such a dialogue about such differences. This "talking past each other" manifests itself in many ways.

Q: Can outsiders bring enough pressure to create political and social change in China?

A: Outside pressure can be a useful catalyst, but probably more so when used to feed internal constituencies for change, and less so when used confrontationally.

What is quite interesting is how even ordinary citizens have taken umbrage at some of the so-called politicization of the Games. We should think about what this means. It suggests that purely raining on the Chinese parade isn't going to have the intended effect. It has to be combined with other action.

Q: You recently wrote about the writings of Mandarin Yung Wing, a senior bureaucrat during the time of the Manchu regime and the first Chinese national to graduate from Yale. What did he accomplish, and does his story hold relevance for reformers today?

A: Yung Wing, a Yale graduate, lived during tumultuous change—the Taiping Rebellion in China and the Civil War in the United States—yet accomplished an enormous amount during this time of ferment: for example, technology transfer to China, helping Chinese students in the United States, promoting human rights for exploited workers in the Americas, etcetera. The litany is very impressive. Most of all, he seemed to serve as a human bridge.

Q: If reformers wanted to take the Yung Wing example and work for change inside China, what potential routes or alliances are open to them? Who should they be working with?

A: We need bridges like Mandarin Yung Wing, trusted by both China and the West to catalyze change.

There are certainly influential Chinese, equally comfortable in the United States and China today, who already serve as such change-agents. That China is receptive to their efforts is clear from the welcome mat laid out for its diaspora in the past quarter century. Supporting the efforts of such individual change-agents is a way forward.

There can be corporate bridges also, to build on these interpersonal ones. Western corporations taking the long view of working in China, not just for their shareholders but also to support productive change in China, can also function as constructive bridges. Seeing China as a short-term cost minimization fix is, in this sense, a lost opportunity.

Q: It seems that China had hoped to use the Olympic Games as kind of a global coming-out party. If this is true, is the country succeeding at its objective?

A: To some extent, yes, and not just in physical infrastructure development, which in any case has been a strong point of the way in which China has developed. But it is forcing China to learn how to deal with the "softer" side of development, something that its neighbor, India, has been much better at.

After all, we are discussing the Olympics, are we not, in a spirit of constructive engagement? That's a good sign, as are the debates within China that are prompted by the Olympics. Unsavory incidents, prompted by any side, will only set back the cause of promoting continual development in China, so we can all hope these do not come to pass.