Although the Olympics drew great praise from the Chinese people, reviews abroad were mixed. To be sure, foreign observers were in awe, even shock, at Beijing's imaginative architecture, the impressive organisation and staging of the Games, and the stunning performances of China's athletes. But enormous media coverage also enabled the world to see more of the negative side of the distinctive authoritarian system that produced this triumph - especially its absolute intolerance of public dissent and its indifference to fair procedures for punishing dissenters.
Nothing more vividly illustrated the repressive aspects of China's government than the clumsy efforts of the Beijing police to stop two elderly grandmothers from seizing the opportunity their government had ostentatiously extended to the masses to engage in public protest during the Olympics. For many years, these determined women, both in their late 70s, had been fruitlessly seeking adequate compensation from the Beijing city government for having ousted them from their apartments. When, in apparent compliance with the practice of previous Olympics, the government announced that China, too, would permit public protests during the Olympics, the two women followed the application procedures.
Yet they proved no more successful than the many others who applied. Indeed, they ended up among those who were formally punished for their perseverance. Local police sentenced each of the women to one year of 're-education through labour', which they threatened to carry out if the grandmothers persisted.
Every year in China, several hundred thousand people have to undergo one to three years of 're-education through labour' and, in most cases, the public learns nothing about it, due to the customary non-transparency of the system. This time, however, because Beijing was saturated with foreign reporters, the sentencing of the two women instantly made headlines around the world.
A few days later, however, something extraordinary happened. So great was the worldwide clamour and ridicule against these ludicrous punishments that the sentences were rescinded. This averted the even more disastrous public relations debacle that would have resulted from the spectacle of the police dragging the grandmothers away. How should we interpret the Chinese government's bizarre, self-inflicted wound? Does the embarrassing revoking of the sentences offer hope that the Communist Party leaders may have acquired greater sensitivity to world opinion regarding their human rights violations?
When democratic countries such as the United States commit human rights abuses, foreign criticism helps fuel domestic support for reforms. Democratic countries have uncensored media, an open political process and independent courts to deal with such abuses. Yet China's media is heavily censored, its political process is monopolised by the party and its courts are tightly controlled. In these circumstances, can foreign criticism lead to more than cosmetic repudiation of the abuses that occasionally become exposed to the world? Can foreign criticism be useful to those Chinese reformers who, despite restrictions, continue to lobby for systemic changes?
For years, a political struggle has been under way in Beijing to abolish 're-education through labour'. For over half a century, its existence has undermined the efforts of reformers to create a formal criminal justice system, with its codes of criminal law and procedure, its prosecutors and defence lawyers, and its trial and appellate courts. The 're-education' option enables the police to avoid almost all those annoying limitations on their freedom to punish anyone for virtually anything by imposing up to three years of coerced confinement. The theory that purportedly justifies this punishment is that it is merely an 'administrative' sanction and therefore the accused do not require the modest protections of the current criminal process.
Several years ago, some reformers were confident that the National People's Congress would abolish 're-education through labour'. This would have been a major step towards ratification of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998 and which bans arbitrary police detention. But the party's Central Political-Legal Committee has blocked all progress, insisting that the police would be unable to control the growing social unrest if this weapon were taken away.
It would be tempting to hope that rescinding the grandmothers' sentences symbolised a new awareness by China's leaders of the importance of bringing their nation into compliance with the minimum criminal justice standards of the world community. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to sustain this hope. For the immediate future, at least, the likelihood is that tens of thousands will continue to be sentenced to 're-education' outside the glare of publicity, that foreign critics will continue to have little impact and that Beijing will continue to evade efforts to call its abuses to account before the UN.
Yet hope for progress should not be abandoned. The Olympics must have made clearer than ever to China's leaders that it is far better to be praised and respected by the world than to be scorned. America's current leaders are belatedly relearning this lesson. One hopes that China's leaders won't be far behind.
Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York