The danger in Chinese impunity
The closer we get to the Beijing Olympics, the more China resembles global warming: We're all aware of the problem, it threatens every one of us and we can all do something about it. But we choose not to.
The evidence of Beijing's dereliction continues to pile up. From toys that can have the same effect as a "date rape" drug if swallowed to the systematic detention of dissidents of all stripes to the arming of gross violators of human rights abroad, China remains an irresponsible stakeholder with relative impunity, thanks partly to international acquiescence to its demand that no one meddle in its affairs.
When a state acts irresponsibly in the 21st century, everybody is at risk. As China expands its interactions with the global economy, domestic matters can no longer be treated in isolation from the outside world.
Problems stemming from the trade in dangerous goods, criminal negligence, lack of official oversight and mere incompetence pose a threat to consumers of Chinese products. But because China is likely to remain a manufacturer's paradise for some years to come, it is not unreasonable for the international community to give it a certain amount of time to make necessary adjustments.
Where the world should be less patient, however, is on matters where adjustments need to be immediate. Human rights and espionage come to mind.
Despite commitments it made as a future host of the Olympics, Beijing has continued to violate media freedoms. As Human Rights Watch reported last week: "Foreign correspondents routinely face harassment, detention and intimidation at the hands of Chinese security forces and plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest."
Nothing underscores this reality better than a BBC correspondent who spent a day in detention for covering simmering unrest, only to find that in the meantime the bolts holding the wheels of his car to the chassis had been tampered with.
The International Olympic Committee is fully aware of these transgressions, but Beijing will not be rebuked. And if it is allowed to act in such a manner with foreign correspondents, one can only imagine how the government must be treating people far from the gaze of journalists and cameras of the international press.
By giving Beijing a free hand to harass and endanger foreign journalists, the international community condones repression in China.
With regard to espionage, US Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told a House of Representatives hearing in September that Chinese espionage activities against the US were "reaching Cold War levels," while in April the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said Chinese spies were stealing US$1 billion in technological secrets every month and that almost half of its counter-intelligence efforts were against China.
Given Beijing's close and sometimes inseparable relationship with the private sector, the recent discovery of spyware on Chinese-made portable hard drives -- which collects information on computers and beames it to servers in Beijing -- also points to the possibility of state involvement in the gathering of intelligence through exporters. As China sells more electronics abroad, opportunities to use such technology to conduct espionage can only multiply.
Failure to hold Beijing accountable on these serious matters will only encourage it to amplify its repression in areas where the international community has less say.