August 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Is this the beginning of the Chinese century?

Our greatest now must be our freedom to use the Internet to access any information, to communicate any ideas, to challenge any convention and try to persuade to the contrary anyone resisting progress.

Anyone watching the Olympics last month had to be impressed by the spectacle of the Opening Ceremony, the pristine grandeur of the stadiums and the emergence of China’s athletes, who captured more gold than America’s Olympians, the invincible Michael Phelps notwithstanding. It was the latest turn in what has become a long trail of Chinese surprises. Watching China’s transformation over the last 30 years from a third-world communist economy to a capitalist powerhouse, one wonders whether the U.S. will lose its leadership among nations to China. The 20th Century was clearly an American one, but the 21st Century is looking very Chinese.

In the waning days of the Games, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that China’s performance at the Olympics symbolizes a much broader transition toward Chinese dominance of the arts, business, science and education. “Get used to it,” writes Kristof, who postulates that China seems destined to return to the world leadership it enjoyed during the great Dynasties prior to 1400, when Europe was a weak patchwork of feudal states. The West, he says, will have to adjust in a not-too-distant future to a China that reigns supreme.

It’s a fascinating and thoroughly frightening question: Can a totalitarian state emerge as the world leader? Make no mistake; despite their embrace of capitalism, the Chinese are not any freer today than they were two decades ago, when Chinese tanks brutally squelched peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square. During the Games, when China sent 70-year-olds to prison for “re-education” merely for requesting to protest their displacement from their homes to make way for the Olympics, it reminded us that this Miracle of the East is still a communist society, albeit one now clothed in pinstripes. While China has opened herself up to western economics, she continues to hide behind the Great Wall erected around her political institutions.

Because of that, how can we accept China’s supremacy as a fait accompli? It was individual freedom from government and religious institutions that propelled England and then America into world supremacy. Many Chinese now have the freedom to trade in their bicycles for automobiles and to motor into the drive-thru at McDonald’s. But what does that mean when Chinese citizens lack the incredible power we enjoy of unrestricted access to the Internet-now the driver of economic, political and cultural exchange?

To a nation whose citizens are blessed with many gifts, our greatest now must be our freedom to use the Internet to access any information, to communicate any ideas, to challenge any convention and try to persuade to the contrary anyone resisting progress. This gift also provides the means to conduct business more efficiently than we thought possible only a decade ago. If we awake to the full potential of this instrument of change, even as the Chinese leadership lives in fear of it, we need not fear awaking anytime soon to a supreme China.

This gift must be used wisely and for the benefit of all. It can help us revitalize our decrepit educational system, efficiently administer healthcare to everyone, provide expanded economic opportunities, monitor and improve government services and hold our leaders more accountable.

It is also a gift that will not be denied the Chinese, or anyone else, forever. Information technology eventually trumps attempts by totalitarian regimes to restrain its advance. So while we still have a golden opportunity to excel in the world beyond the Games, we can only do so if we seize it.

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