LONDON — At the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, spectators will watch as athletes from the worst regimes on the planet parade by. Whether they are from dictatorships of the left or right, secular or theocratic, they will have one thing in common: the hosts of the games that, according to the mission statement, are striving “for a bright future for mankind” will support their oppressors.

The flag of Sudan will flutter. China supplied the weapons that massacred so many in Darfur. As further sweeteners, it added interest-free loans for a new presidential palace and vetoes of mild condemnations of genocide from the United Nations. In return, China got most of Sudan’s oil.

The Burmese athletes will wave to the crowd and look as if they are representing an independent country. In truth, Burma is little more than a Chinese satellite. In return for the weapons to suppress democrats and vetoes at the U.N. Security Council, the junta sells it gas at discounted rates far below what its wretched citizens have to pay.

There will be no Tibetan contingent, of course. Chinese immigrants are obliterating the identity of the occupied country, which will soon be nothing more than a memory. Athletes from half-starved Zimbabwe, whose senile despot props himself up with the Zimmer frame of Chinese aid, will be there, however. As will teams from the Iranian mullahocracy, grateful recipients of Chinese missiles and the prison state of North Korea, for whom China is the sole reliable ally.

With Steven Spielberg citing China’s complicity in the Sudan atrocities as his reason for withdrawing as the Olympics’ artistic adviser, comparisons with the 20th century will soon be flowing. Will Beijing be like the 1936 Berlin Olympics Hitler used to celebrate Nazism? Or the 1980 Moscow games the Americans boycotted in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? I suspect the past won’t be a guide because the ideological struggles of the 20th century are over.

China’s communists are communists in name only. They are not helping dictators because they are comrades who share their ideology. They have no ideology beyond national self-interest and a well-warranted desire to stop the outsiders insisting on standards in Africa or Asia they do not intend to abide by.

Human Rights Watch points out that if, say, Sudan were to turn into a peaceful state with a constitutional government, the Chinese would not care as long as the oil still flowed. China’s postcommunists are like mafiosi. It is not personal, just business. They are happy to do deals with anyone, as Henry Kissinger recognized when he set himself up to be PR man for so many of the corporations that went on to benefit from the Communist Party’s repression of free trade unions.

Campaign groups and governments that want to promote the spread of democracy have been far slower to understand that the emerging power of the 21st century will be every tyrant’s first customer and banker of last resort and adjust their tactics accordingly.

Their failure may be because it is far from clear what fresh tactics are on offer. Take the supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning for a democratic Burma. Their demonstrations outside Chinese embassies have had no effect. They persuaded Gordon Brown to raise Burma in meetings with the Chinese leadership, but again the British prime minister was unlikely to have made an impression. Their other successes look equally fragile. The European Union has imposed sanctions, but Western energy companies ask with justice why they should be told not to compete for gas contracts the Chinese will snap up.

More seriously, they are running into a problem familiar to anyone who campaigned against 20th-century dictatorships: where to find allies. If you are protesting an aspect of American policy — Guantanamo Bay or attitudes to global warming — this isn’t an issue. You can ally with and be informed by American activists, journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians.

The resources of the civic society of a free country are at your disposal and you can use them to shift American opinion. A subject of the Chinese Communist Party who helps foreign critics put pressure on Beijing risks imprisonment, and none but the bravest do.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, showed he understood the dilemmas of the new century when he gave a lecture in honor of Suu Kyi in Oxford last week. He described how the great wave of democratization, which began with the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in the ’70s, moved through South America, the Soviet empire, South Africa and the tyrannies of East Asia, was petering out.

The foreign secretary was undiplomatic enough to continue that the economic success of China had proved that history was not over and he was right. Its combination of communist suppression with market economics is being seen as a viable alternative to liberal freedoms, notably by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, but also by antidemocratic forces across Asia.

The only justification for the Beijing games is that they will allow connoisseurs of the grotesque to inspect this ghoulish hybrid of the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism close up. The march of China’s bloodstained allies round the stadium will merely be the beginning. The International Olympic Committee and all the national sports bureaucracies will follow up by instructing athletes not to say a word out of place.

The free-market CEOs of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric and all the other sponsors who have made money out of China will join the communists in insisting that outsiders have no right to criticize. Any Chinese dissident who hasn’t been picked up before the world’s journalists arrive will face terrifying punishments if he speaks to them.

I know sportsmen and women are exasperated by demands to boycott events they have dreamed of winning for years. Why should they suffer when no business or government is prepared to turn its back on the vast Chinese market? For all that, they still should not go. The hypocrisy of the 2008 Olympics will make all but the most hardhearted athletes retch. They will not look back on it not as a high point of their careers, but a nadir.

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