THERE WAS a flurry of excitement last week about the U.S.-based scholars whom China has arrested in recent months in its chilling campaign to intimidate intellectuals. Gao Zhan, a researcher associated with American University, and Li Shaomin, a U.S. citizen who has been teaching in Hong Kong, reportedly had been put on trial; maybe, their supporters speculated, they would be convicted and expelled before the International Olympic Committee's vote next Friday on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Summer Games.
China typically offers a few such micro-concessions when it wants something from the West -- and it badly wants to win the IOC vote. This time, however, not even such a token nod to human rights appears planned. It turns out that Mr. Li's trial may be scheduled for July 14 -- the day after the Olympic decision -- and Ms. Gao's may not occur until still later. At least two other detained scholars with American citizenship or residency remain in limbo.
This small drama should serve as a lesson for those who believe that awarding China the Olympics will prompt it to temper its violations of human rights, its aggressive behavior toward Taiwan or its destruction of the environment. It now seems likely that China will get the games; the Olympic bureaucracy and many developing countries are eager for it, and the Bush administration recently decided not to oppose it.
China's bureaucrats have spent the past couple of weeks grandly touring Western reporters around the fields and soon-to-be-bulldozed neighborhoods where they plan to invest $14 billion in stadiums, housing, highways and subway lines between now and 2008. But the award will not alter the underlying drift of Chinese politics, which is driven by far more powerful forces, including the struggle over the succession to President Jiang Zemin next year and the larger effort by the Communist Party to hang onto power despite the collapse of its ideology. So intense are those pressures that even the old tokenism no longer seems to work -- Beijing appears prepared to press on with repression even while demanding that the world accept it as an Olympic host and World Trade Organization member.
The list of offenses the IOC committee will be obliged to ignore grows longer by the day. There are the trumped-up espionage charges against Ms. Gao, Mr. Li, Wu Jianmin and Tan Guangguang, part of a larger crackdown on free thought that has included shutting down Internet cafes and independent-minded newspapers and arresting dissidents. There is the continuing campaign against religion; this month brought reports of the government's attack on a center for Buddhist teaching as well as the death of at least three more members of the Falun Gong sect at a state labor camp. There is the massive use of the death penalty; Amnesty International says more people have been executed in China during the past three months -- 1,781 -- than in all the rest of the world during the past three years.
Some supporters of China argue that the 2008 Olympics might have the same effect in China as the 1988 Olympics did in South Korea, where an opening to the world led to a broader opening to democracy. But it seems just as plausible that the critics who cite the example of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin will be right -- that the games will prove a platform for a dictatorship to strut its regimented athletes and nationalist agenda before the world. Perhaps the ongoing succession struggle will produce a Chinese leadership with the courage to move away from that nationalism and the accompanying xenophobia that seem to be filling the vacuum left by Communist ideology. But the Olympics is unlikely to encourage such a shift.