If you look closely at a spot in a meadow, you will see some things you may not enjoy looking at -- weeds, bugs, funguses, bare spots of dirt, bits of trash, animal bones and so on. If you view it from a distance, however, you may see a vista that is far more appealing.
With the opening of the Beijing Olympics, outsiders are putting modern China under a microscope and finding much that is ugly. That perception is accurate but not complete. A full appreciation requires taking in the panorama of Chinese life and history, which may be hard to do in the preoccupation with the host country's flaws.
There are plenty to choose from. The government is repressive, undemocratic and often brutal. It censors news coverage, imprisons dissidents, restricts religion and maintains a monopoly on political power.
So far, the Olympics have not served the goal of fostering liberalization. "The year-long prelude to the Beijing Games has seen a major crackdown on free speech and dissent; a massive sweep of 'undesirables' from the host city; and increasing abuses of ethnic minority Tibetans and Uighurs," says Minky Worden, an official of Human Rights Watch, in an e-mail. In the next two weeks, the Chinese leadership is going to get a lot of unflattering coverage, all richly deserved.
But it would be a shame to focus on its sins to the exclusion of everything else. Westerners can easily forget that this authoritarian country used to be a totalitarian country, with perhaps the most grotesque human rights record of the 20th century
During the three decades after the Communist Party took over in 1949, it was responsible for more than 70 million deaths. Some of them were due to political persecution and terror, and some to catastrophic economic mismanagement. The party deliberately fomented savage social upheavals that not only punished its alleged enemies but devastated China's cultural heritage. It also kept the country poor.
All that is in the past. Since Deng Xiaoping gained power in the late 1970s and liberalized the economy, China has been transformed almost beyond belief. Its economy has expanded tenfold. No country in history has ever lifted so many people out of poverty so rapidly.
What was once a vast prison camp has conceded a great deal of personal freedom to ordinary people. They can work and live where they choose. They can travel and study abroad. They have access to the Internet. There is a growing sense among the Chinese that they are entitled to certain basic human rights -- a startling development in a country where, for centuries, individual rights have been an alien concept.
As repressive regimes go, this one could be worse. Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard and Boston College, says, "I would put China in the top 10 percent of all the authoritarian states in the world" -- comparing it favorably with many East Asian countries (notably North Korea and Burma), most Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and most African nations.
He thinks the recent pre-Olympics security crackdown won't last long. And there is good reason to expect that in the coming years and decades, China will continue to progress in human rights.
Hoover Institution fellow Henry Rowen, an East Asia specialist, notes that development and democracy almost universally move in tandem. A market economy can't function without substantial freedom from state control. As countries become richer and more educated, they unleash forces that are incompatible with authoritarian rule.
You can usually anticipate political advances by gauging the rise of gross domestic product per capita. "In 2005," writes Rowen, "every country in the world (oil states excepted) with GDPpc topping $8,000 was at least Partly Free [as categorized by the human rights group Freedom House]; indeed, all ranked as Free except the tiny island city-state of Singapore." Given China's growth trajectory, he predicts it will move from Not Free to Partly Free by 2015 -- and by 2025, it will be "classed as belonging to the Free nations of the earth."
Anyone contemplating the thuggish repression still prevalent under the Beijing government may find that hard to imagine. But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is not to underestimate China's capacity for positive change.