Beijing’s campaign to stage the Olympics has just taken an ugly turn after a tumultuous two weeks. Steven Spielberg, citing “unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur,” severed his relationship with the Chinese organizers of the Games, on February 12. He had been an artistic advisor for the opening and closing ceremonies.
The famed director’s announcement came at a particularly inopportune moment for the Chinese central government. Senior cadres were just returning from the long Lunar New Year break, so Beijing’s official response was slow and muted. “We regret over his recent statement and his explanations for the decision,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, a full two days after the famed director’s announcement. People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, at first chose to accentuate the positive by highlighting comments from President Bush. “I’m going to the Olympics,” he said, according to the paper. “I view the Olympics as a sporting event.” At the same time, Chinese government propaganda units predictably tried to convince the world that Beijing was playing a positive role in troubled Sudan.
Up until Spielberg’s withdrawal, Beijing looked like it would stage a successful “coming-out party,” as the Summer Games have come to be known. Yet his decision to disassociate himself from the Olympics was the first big win for the dissidents who have sought to use the extravaganza as a way to force China to change its policies both at home and abroad. As a result, officials in the Chinese capital now realize that the Games could become a debacle for the country. That’s why, in the last few days, state media has gone on the attack against Mr. Spielberg.
“A Western film director is so ‘naïve and simple-minded’ that he has made an inopportune move on the issue of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games by linking it to [the] Darfur issue in Sudan, and this perhaps exhibited the ‘unique’ qualities of this Hollywood celebrity,” said People’s Daily on Wednesday. “This person is completely living in his sci-fi world and cannot distinguish dream from reality,” said a commentary in China Youth Daily. Official media, unfortunately, is getting personal and turning ugly.
Maybe that is because the stakes are getting higher. In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Ronan Farrow and Mia Farrow increased the pressure by suggesting that sponsors follow Spielberg’s example. “Mr. Spielberg has thrown the ball squarely into the court of those most likely to have China’s ear in the lead-up to the Games: those underwriting the ceremony,” they write. “Now, more than ever, corporate sponsors must step up and do their part. McDonalds, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Visa, and Microsoft should join the ranks of responsible individuals protesting the Games.”
Beijing responded by pleading with activists not to pressure sponsors. Yet it’s unlikely that those who already talk about the “Genocide Olympics” will heed China’s call. Between now and the opening of the event on August 8, each side will try to gain an advantage on the other. Darfur is an inflammatory issue, the Chinese government has much riding on a successful Olympiad, and the activists sense that Spielberg’s resignation has caught the world’s attention. The room for compromise, therefore, is shrinking.
Events in western Sudan make compromise harder for the activists. Early this month the fighting intensified as Khartoum launched yet another offensive. Additional civilian deaths have been reported – there are already 200,000 to 400,000 – and even more refugees have poured over the border into Chad; some 2.5 million have fled their homes. Beijing, departing from its long-held policy of nonintervention in the wake of the Spielberg announcement, called on its ally Sudan to “cooperate better with the international community and demonstrate greater flexibility on some technical issues,” a reference to Khartoum’s reluctance to accept non-African peacekeepers. The Sudanese government, however, is increasingly uncooperative and unwilling to take advice from its supporters.
“What this government responds to is pressure,” says Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition. He was talking about Khartoum, but the same is true about Beijing. Quiet diplomacy has done little to change Chinese policy on Sudan. In the absence of pressure, Beijing’s leaders will not end their arms shipments to Khartoum, cut off their commercial relations with the country, or stop blocking the U.N. Security Council from taking effective action to end the crisis.
After Spielberg severed his connection with the Olympics, President Bush talked about his meetings with Hu Jintao. “I do remind him that he can do more to relieve the suffering in Darfur.” Maybe so, but it then appears that the American leader has been particularly ineffective in getting the Chinese to do the right thing in Sudan. China’s supremos are ruthlessly pragmatic, and they are not moved by gentle words of persuasion. This month we have seen that one sharp public rebuke from a private citizen was worth more than all the quiet diplomacy of the most powerful figure on earth.