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Olympic Protests: A Second Look

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If real human rights reform in China is what you want, then castigating the Chinese on the world stage isn't too productive. Mainly because it impedes the very real and dramatic progress that is actually being made on the ground.

China wages reform through test balloons. With the economy, it was Special Economic Zones, where laws governing commerce were experimentally relaxed before being rolled out to the country at large.

Today, it's politics. The big, booming city of Shenzhen, once an economic laboratory, is today a political laboratory. Just a few weeks ago, Shenzhen's Communist Party leaders presented a plan that would allow for local elections, cede greater authority to the legislature, grant more independence to the judiciary, and provide more transparency and accountability within the Party ranks.

This is a big deal. It's the equivalent of Los Angeles presenting the federal government with a plan to radically break with our political system. Whether Shenzhen's plan gets enacted soon remains to be seen. But Shenzhen's actions show us a glimpse of China's political test balloons, and where the moderates in the Communist Party want to take the country. By censuring the Chinese on the world stage, we tend to strengthen the hand of the Party hard-liners who want to keep China's citizens locked tight and its politics Leninist.

We also piss off the Chinese people. There are 1.3 billion souls in China who not only yearn to breathe free, but more and more are demanding it. Protests are on the rise in China (with more than 27,000 reported cases last year), as citizens throughout the country insist on everything from legal justice to clean government to greater free speech and religion. Chinese are not only taking to the streets in protest. They're committing acts of civil disobedience and are going toe-to-toe with the police. By wagging our finger at China, we're not making friends of the Chinese people. Rather, we are stoking nationalism and support for the Communist Party.

So while protest is certainly understandable and well-meaning, unfortunately, it doesn't really yield the results we want -- real progress on human rights. Instead, our government, NGOs, and businesses must continue to work with the Chinese to build the social and governmental institutions that are the bedrock of human rights: the rule of law and a "rights-based" culture.

Twenty-five years of capitalism in China have produced many negative externalities -- environmental devastation chief among them -- but, there have been some positive consequences from a human rights perspective. Rule of law is definitely taking hold, as well as a widespread public perception of "rights" and what they mean.

Building these institutions will take time, but it's time well spent. They are necessary to a truly vibrant, open society. Simply holding an election can't create a democracy, just as hosting the Olympics can't instantly turn China into a state that honors human rights.