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Leading article: China must not let its brief democratic light go out

Saturday 02 August 2008 00:00 BST

There was something rather inappropriate about the timing of yesterday's solar eclipse, some of the best views of which could be seen in China. There was darkness over the territory of the 2008 Olympic host just as the government in Beijing was relaxing its policy of censoring the internet and allowing a shaft of light into this still largely closed society. International journalists in the Chinese capital turned on their computers and found themselves able to access previously blocked websites run by, among others, Amnesty International and the BBC.

Actually, we should not get carried away by this move from the Chinese government. All the signs are that this relaxation will be temporary, probably for the duration of the Games. It is patchy too. Only parts of Beijing and a few cities seem to have been granted wider internet access. And there is no indication that the regime's assiduous corps of web censors is to be called off.

But it would be wrong to dismiss this move as an irrelevance. It represents a capitulation to pressure from the International Olympic Committee and the demands of the outside world; a capitulation that would once have been deemed unthinkable by the proud rulers of Beijing. The fact that pressure has been successful shows the Games still give the outside world leverage over the Chinese regime. Beijing is plainly desperate for them to be regarded as an unalloyed success.

The crucial question is whether, once this leverage has disappeared, Beijing will return to its former ways as if nothing had happened. There are some grounds for optimism. The speech of the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, yesterday on the "spiritual legacy" of the Games was potentially significant. It suggests that the government sees the hosting of a fortnight of sporting competition as the beginning of a process of reform in China, rather than the end.

The outside world will have a crucial role to play in the coming years. Engagement will produce much better results than isolation. But at the same time, the developed world must guard against soft-pedalling sensitive issues such as the treatment of Tibet, or Beijing's sponsorship of vile regimes in Africa. And for the West to allow a desire for trade with this emerging economic superpower to override concerns about human rights and freedom within its territory would be a terrible, and short-sighted, mistake. It will be a fine diplomatic and political balancing act, but the rewards, in the form of a stable and free China, are potentially vast.

It is all too easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of seeing this come about. And Amnesty International's latest report, which argues that human rights abuses have increased in the run-up to the Games, provides plenty of supporting material for those inclined to argue that the communist elite will never be able to tolerate dissent.

Yet it is also important to remember that while economic growth has been rapid, political change has been incremental. Few would dispute that there has been a considerable improvement in the level of freedom enjoyed by the typical Chinese citizen in the two decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre. But it would be impossible to point to a single moment when that took effect. Barring some catastrophic economic implosion, it is hard to see China developing politically at anything other than this piecemeal pace.

Develop, though, it must. We must hope that these Olympic Games will be the start of a new era of openness. China needs more than simply a brief eclipse of authoritarianism.

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