CHINA WILL put its best foot forward Friday night. To be more precise: its best 2.6 billion feet. The opening ceremonies of the XXIX Olympiad will certainly dazzle, as Olympic opening ceremonies always do. The beautiful and enchanting culture of the 1.3 billion Chinese people will be on display for a worldwide television audience, and the message the planet's most populous and largest communist nation will be sending us is this: We are not evil, we are good, and we just want to be your friends.
But why should we continue to regard China with skepticism? Let us count the ways:
•Tibet. Protests there back in the spring came at an awkward time for Beijing and brought unwanted attention to China's ongoing disregard for human rights.
•Tiananmen Square. Your government knows best. Don't push it.
•One child per household. Got it? No siblings. China has figured out how to upset both pro-choice and pro-life.
•Some 2.3 million American jobs have been lost to China since 2001, including 366,000 in 2007 alone, according to a study undertaken by steel companies and the United Steelworkers.
An added irony: Thousands of Americans who lost their jobs now must buy many of the necessities of their lives with "Made in China" labels attached. China is skilled at manipulating its currency, effectively subsidizing exports, keeping wages low, enforcing barriers to many imports, and worsening the U.S. trade deficit. Experts who study such things say roughly a fourth of China's population lives in reasonable comfort while a billion or more live in poverty. So much for communal nirvana.
•Finally, the propaganda extravaganza China will hope to reap from the next two weeks of global exposure stands in contrast to its attitude half a century ago when Mao refused to let his country participate in the 1958 Olympics because the IOC would not ban Taiwan's athletes.
It was a calculated risk seven years ago when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. A country with more people than any other was - as it remains today - an enigma. It is human nature to fear what we do not understand, and much of the free world does not begin to understand China.
Consider that for every American in this country there are more than four Chinese in China. And while we take criticism of our leaders for granted, the Chinese have no such luxury. China knows how to quash dissent. The world has not forgotten the images of Tiananmen in 1989. The square, by the way, is just five miles from National Stadium, which will stage the Opening Ceremonies on Friday. There will be no tanks in the stadium, but Chinese citizens who might try to make a messy scene will incur swift retribution. They will find no easy path to the Olympics' international stage.
Communism begets such official paranoia, and paranoia on a scale this grand makes China a convenient target for international criticism and contempt. The "Red Menace" is still real in many parts of the world, even if the truly quirky, unpredictable, and downright dangerous leadership of North Korea may present the greater risk these days.
So let's at least put China's politicization of its great national moment in context. The old Olympic ideal of spirited and friendly athletic competition became a quaint and obsolete notion long ago.
Adolf Hitler hoped the 1936 Games in Berlin would demonstrate the superiority of his master race and the Fatherland, but a son of America, Jesse Owens, spoiled Der Feuhrer's party.
In 1968, in Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated against racial prejudice back home by raising their clenched fists during the national anthem at the medal ceremony.
Terrorism changed everything at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, when Palestinian hoodlums kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes, all of whom died in a bloody finale to the ordeal.
On it goes.
President Jimmy Carter kept American athletes home and prohibited U.S. involvement in the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sixty other nations did the same, but the United States is the only absentee most people remember.
The Soviets and many of the Eastern-bloc countries returned the gesture four years later by boycotting the Los Angeles Games. The Cold War had trumped the noble message of the Olympic logo and its five linked rings. Today, more than two decades later, we are trapped in our own Afghanistan quagmire.
Professionals who compete as amateurs and athletes who use drugs to gain a competitive advantage have forever compromised the Olympic ideal for millions around the world. And there's a certain hypocrisy in U.S. criticism of athletes from communist nations training in effect as employees of the state - remember the East German swimmers? - when our own athletes are outfitted so lavishly and rewarded so handsomely by corporate America.
Commercialization may be less offensive to our way of thinking than state-supported win-or-else sports academies like those in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang, but both concepts sully what the Games are supposed to be about.
I cannot shake the image of May's massive, 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China's Sichuan province, which killed 70,000 people and left 5 million homeless. The earthquake put a human face on the predicament of most Chinese more effectively than any human rights protest.
So on the whole, I do not criticize President Bush's decision to go to Beijing for the Games. There is little about the man's two terms that impresses me, but I think his decision this time is the right one. We cannot coexist with something we refuse to acknowledge. Too bad he doesn't feel the same way about Cuba.