Darfur Collides With Olympics, and China Yields
|New York Times, 13 Avril 2007|
For the past two years, China has protected the Sudanese government as the United States and Britain have pushed for United Nations Security Council sanctions against Sudan for the violence in Darfur.
But in the past week, strange things have happened. A senior Chinese official, Zhai Jun, traveled to Sudan to push the Sudanese government to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force. Mr. Zhai even went all the way to Darfur and toured three refugee camps, a rare event for a high-ranking official from China, which has extensive business and oil ties to Sudan and generally avoids telling other countries how to conduct their internal affairs.
So what gives? Credit goes to Hollywood — Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg in particular. Just when it seemed safe to buy a plane ticket to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, nongovernmental organizations and other groups appear to have scored a surprising success in an effort to link the Olympics, which the Chinese government holds very dear, to the killings in Darfur, which, until recently, Beijing had not seemed too concerned about.
Ms. Farrow, a good-will ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund, has played a crucial role, starting a campaign last month to label the Games in Beijing the “Genocide Olympics” and calling on corporate sponsors and even Mr. Spielberg, who is an artistic adviser to China for the Games, to publicly exhort China to do something about Darfur. In a March 28 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, she warned Mr. Spielberg that he could “go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games,” a reference to a German filmmaker who made Nazi propaganda films.
Four days later, Mr. Spielberg sent a letter to President Hu Jintao of China, condemning the killings in Darfur and asking the Chinese government to use its influence in the region “to bring an end to the human suffering there,” according to Mr. Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy.
China soon dispatched Mr. Zhai to Darfur, a turnaround that served as a classic study of how a pressure campaign, aimed to strike Beijing in a vulnerable spot at a vulnerable time, could accomplish what years of diplomacy could not.
Groups focusing on many issues, including Tibet and human rights, have called for boycotts of the Games next year. But none of those issues have packed the punch of Darfur, where at least 200,000 people — some say as many as 400,000 — mostly non-Arab men, women and children, have died and 2.5 million have been displaced, as government-backed Arab militias called the janjaweed have attacked the local population.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan has repeatedly refused American, African and European demands that he allow a United Nations peacekeeping force to supplement an underequipped and besieged African Union force of 7,000 soldiers who have been trying, with dwindling success, to restore order in the Darfur region.
“Whatever ingredient went into the decision for him to go, I’m so pleased that he went,” Ms. Farrow said in a phone interview about Mr. Zhai’s trip. She called the response from Beijing “extraordinary.”
In describing Mr. Spielberg’s decision to write to the Chinese leader, the filmmaker’s spokesman said that while Mr. Spielberg “certainly has been aware of the situation in Darfur” it was “only recently that he became aware of China’s involvement there.”
During a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Zhai called activists who want to boycott the Games “either ignorant or ill natured.” But he added, “We suggest the Sudan side show flexibility and accept” the United Nations peacekeepers.
During closed-door diplomatic meetings, Chinese officials have said they do not want any of their Darfur overtures linked to the Olympics, American and European officials said.
In an e-mail message on Thursday, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington warned anew against such a linkage. “If someone wants to pin Olympic Games and Darfur issue together to raise his/her fame, he/she is playing a futile trick,” the spokesman, Chu Maoming, wrote.
National pride in China has been surging over the coming Olympics, with a gigantic clock in Tiananmen Square counting down the minutes to the Games, and Olympic souvenir stores sprouting all over with the “One World, One Dream” Beijing Olympics motto.
In public, Bush administration officials have been relatively restrained in welcoming China’s new diplomatic zeal.
“We have indications at this point that the Chinese are now taking even a more aggressive role than they have in the past,” Andrew S. Natsios, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan, told a Senate panel on Wednesday. “I think they may be the crucial actors.”
J. Stephen Morrison, a Sudan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he had been warning Chinese officials that Darfur and the Olympics could collide, to no avail.
“I’ve been talking to them and telling them this is coming, this is coming,” Mr. Morrison said. “I told them, there’s an infrastructure out there, they need to feed the beast, and you’re in their sight.” Before, he said, “they kind of shrugged.”
But there is growing concern inside China that Darfur is hurting Beijing’s image.
“Their equity is to be seen as an ethical, rising global power — that’s their goal,” Mr. Morrison said. “Their goal is not to get in bed with every sleazy government that comes up with a little oil.”
It remains unclear if the Hollywood campaign will work — China has not agreed to sanctions yet. But there is also plenty of time between now and the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games in Beijing next year, and more plans are afoot in the activist camp.
On Feb. 10, in an open letter on his Web site addressed to “Darfur activists and advocates,” (translations of the letter are available in Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Italian, according to the Web site), a Darfur activist, Eric Reeves, promised what he called the “full-scale launch of a large, organized campaign to highlight China’s complicity in the Darfur genocide.”
“It’s time now, to begin shaming China — demanding that if the Beijing government is going to host the Summer Olympic Games of 2008, they must be responsible partners,” Mr. Reeves wrote.
One possibility that activists are weighing: trying to get Olympic athletes to carry a replica of the Olympic torch from Darfur to the Chinese border.