More than 50 years ago, the Chinese communists evicted foreign missionaries on the grounds that the gospel they preached would undermine the creation of a communist heaven on earth.
Now, the International Olympic Committee - a bastion of "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" when it comes to evil - will send the sports equivalent of missionaries to the 2008 Summer Games.
The Western press is full of columns, editorials and stories about the conversion possibilities of sports.
Instead of passing out Bibles, sports missionaries will distribute sportsmanship and goodwill. These are, in the minds of some, supposed to persuade China's citizens, if not its dictators, to embrace our political and economic way of life. Never mind that just 12 years ago, these dictators ordered and applauded the massacre of student protestors in Tiananmen Square (estimates of the death toll range from 200 to 2,000), or that they have just completed an "anti-crime" campaign which resulted in 1,781 executions since April, according to Amnesty International.
China will pretend to adhere to the principles of the Olympic Charter, which include "Encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Not even the staunchest defenders of Beijing 2008 can say that China lives up to such a standard.
Some believe holding the Olympics in Beijing will persuade China to change for the better. That's what former Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a recent New York Times column. That's what USA Today founder Al Neuharth wrote in his July 6 column. While President Carter was right to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, writes Brzezinski, China is different. Satellite TV and the Internet are opening up China to different ideas, he says. I doubt if the troops who killed those pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square had TV or the Internet in their homes.
The Washington Post correctly editorialized last week: "Beijing appears prepared to press on with repression even while demanding that the world accept it as an Olympic host and World Trade Organization member."
A dangerous theme runs through Western thinking. We believe that if enough people can see our goodness and the benefits of democracy and free enterprise they will reject evil, perhaps even overthrowing their dictators. We are so convinced that our way of life is superior to all others that we think we only have to expose people to that way of life and they will embrace our beliefs.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned two decades ago that we in the West make a mistake when we transpose our morality on those who don't share it. That is what those who think the world should ignore China's cemeteries, prisons and execution sites are doing. They believe the sight of athletes from free nations running, jumping, swimming and throwing will persuade China to convert to the democratic systems from which some athletes come. That view didn't work in Berlin in 1936. World War II began three years later.
Americans used to care most about freedom, our own and the freedom of others. Now, we care most about commerce. The material has replaced the spiritual. Nothing China does to suppress its people seems to sufficiently outrage enough politicians or corporations to change their attitude about doing business with this regime. Would the world have stood for awarding the Olympic Games to South Africa when apartheid was in force? Couldn't it have been argued that the Olympics might have opened South Africa to racial tolerance and diversity? Why would that argument have been rejected in the case of South Africa but accepted when it comes to China?
Unless there is observable improvement in China's human rights record, the United States should keep its athletes from participating in the Beijing games. The Carter administration refused to pretend that the invasion of Afghanistan didn't matter. Whoever is president in 2008 should boycott the Beijing Olympics if human rights have not improved in China. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the blood of the martyrs to freedom. To participate would mock the theme of "liberating strife" for which America the Beautiful is supposed to stand.