Darfur collides with Olympics, and China yields
By Helene Cooper
New York Times
Thursday, April 12, 2007
WASHINGTON: 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
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. 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
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 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 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
Four days later, 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 Spielberg's spokesman, Marvin Levy.
China soon dispatched 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,” Farrow said in a phone interview about Zhai`s
trip. She called the response from Beijing “extraordinary.”
In describing Spielberg`s decision to write to the Chinese leader, the
filmmaker`s spokesman said that while 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, 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
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 E
Washington warned anew against such a linkage. “If 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 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,” 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
Their equity is to be seen as an ethical, rising global power — that`s
their goal,” 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,” 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
Contact Greater Talent Network, America's Leading Celebrity Speakers Bureau.