The government in Beijing wants the 2008 Olympics to do for China what the 1964 Olympics did for Japan: Display the country's best qualities and prove that it deserves a place in the family of nations. This means that the Olympics offer a once-in-a-century opportunity to anyone hoping to nudge China toward freedom. Assuming that Chinese human rights remain at their present level, international activists could make the Olympics an occasion to reveal all the grim details. Or perhaps, by simply making a credible threat to humiliate China in 2008, they could encourage long-term improvements.
Members of Falun Gong are the most famous among the several classes of officially persecuted Chinese. The government has made their spiritual practice illegal, on the dubious grounds that they constitute a dangerous, superstition-spreading cult that jeopardizes social stability. Translated, this means Chinese leaders can't live with an organization, however innocent, that's beyond political control. Falun Gong members have been beaten, tortured, sent to work camps, and imprisoned in mental hospitals. All over the world they stand silently outside Chinese consulates and embassies, living symbols of opposition to a regime that smugly believes it can get away forever with arbitrary cruelty. In their vigils the Falun Gong beg, peacefully, for help from the part of humanity that's free.
They deserve support. Why shouldn't the athletes of the world, who will probably contribute to China's prestige in 2008, adopt the Falun Gong as their personal cause? They could begin by indicating sympathy through frequent visits to Falun Gong vigils. They could write letters of support to members imprisoned in China, request talks on the Falun Gong with every Chinese diplomat in the world, and raise the subject whenever meeting Chinese officials for any reason.
They could announce that if China doesn't change its ways, they'll march into the Beijing Olympic Stadium on opening day in 2008, congregate on the field, and perform slow-movement meditation in the style of Falun Gong while several billion TV viewers look on. (They could start practising it at athletic meets right now, as a sign of solidarity.) To do all this they wouldn't need permission from their governments, just silent assent.
That's not one of Mark Palmer's plans, but it's the sort of thing that danced through my mind as I read his remarkable how-to book on the expansion of democracy, a brisk and concise work that's unfortunately lumbered with a clumsy title, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025 (Rowman & Littlefield). Palmer spent 26 years in the U.S. State Department, four as ambassador to Hungary. Since 1990 he's been running broadcasting systems in the former Soviet empire while campaigning for democracy. His book proposes that the free peoples of the world commit themselves to abolishing dictatorship in the next 22 years.
Tyranny has been slowly disappearing for decades, but there remain 45 dictatorships in the world, from Than Shwe in Burma to the princes of Saudi Arabia. While making the lives of their people wretched, they remain capable of starting many more bloody wars before they finally disappear.
How to unseat them? First, Palmer argues, the democratic world must decide that it wants them gone and governments must publicly articulate this goal. Diplomats and business executives, accustomed to flattering tyrants, will object, but Palmer believes public opinion can wear down diplomatic and economic arguments. He wants dictatorship declared a crime against humanity, punishable like other such crimes.
World democracy, he argues, is a critical security goal for everyone, in matters of health and business as much as in questions of terrorism. A democratic China almost certainly would have handled SARS with some honesty and efficiency rather than the mendacity and incompetence it displayed, and Canada might well have been spared a tragedy.
Palmer thinks that military action against dictators will sometimes be necessary, but he favours non-violent struggles, like the one he watched (and abetted) in Hungary in the 1980s and the recent displacement of Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. He provides a tool-kit of ways to fight tyranny, with detailed instructions for 198 forms of non-violent action (23 kinds of strike, 25 forms of economic boycott). He imagines campaigns run by private citizens all over the world but acknowledges that governments will necessarily be involved. Why is there no democratic caucus at the UN? And why didn't the democracies boycott the UN Human Rights Commission when Libya was made chair? (There are many reasons, of course, all of them shameful.) How many foreign governments offered words of support for the highly unusual pro-democracy protest in Riyadh this October? Palmer considers it outrageous that his old State Department colleagues were silent.
He wants to make the transition to democracy a concern of the whole world, not a few politicians and a few organized civil libertarians. His views have a Utopian sound, but perhaps there are times when it's appropriate to re-introduce elements of Utopian thinking into the bloodstream of politics. Better than a moon landing, a campaign for world democracy could turn out to be the great project of the next two decades.