Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Spielberg boycotts Beijing Olympics

Times: The Games will put China's foreign policies under the spotlight as never before

Congratulations to Steven Spielberg, and congratulations to 120 US congressmen and the Nobel prizewinners, sportsmen and women and entertainers who in many countries and cities this week combined to call China's neglect of its responsibilities in Sudan to the world's attention. The decision of one of the world's most celebrated film directors to end his artistic involvement in the Beijing Olympics will not derail the Games, nor detract from the pride of ordinary Chinese people in hosting them, nor prevent athletes who have trained long and hard from competing in them. But the moral force of his rebuke will irritate and embarrass the Chinese Government. In so doing, it will force Beijing to address the reality of being a global player.

Spielberg made two main points in his dignified and moving message to China's leaders - that Beijing's refusal to use its “unique influence” to stop Sudan's “unspeakable crimes against humanity” was in conflict with the Olympic “ideal of brotherhood”; and, more broadly, that China must recognise that “with growing influence come growing responsibilities”. His gesture was made for the sake of the wretched of Darfur, far from China's shores but well within the reach of Chinese diplomacy. The stand he has taken is also in the interest of China itself. There is little point in China spending $40 billion on celebrating its return to prominence on the world stage if it will not shoulder the burdens of greatness.

These protests do no more than hold China to its word. Back in 2001, China's Olympic Committee declared that to award Beijing the 2008 Games would “help the development of human rights”. In making that pledge, China's leaders were aware of international objections. The intent was to deflect criticisms: of the party's refusal to acknowledge, much less atone for, the Tiananmen massacre; of the religious, cultural and economic repression of Tibetans; of the plight of political prisoners in China's vast lao gai labour camps; of the persecution of religious groups such as the Falun Gong; of restrictions on the media and free expression; of China's threatening stance toward Taiwan. That is already a long list, and China's conduct on all counts will come under intense scrutiny in this Olympic year. That is as it should be, which is why it was not only craven but inappropriate for the British Olympic Association to have tried to insert a gagging order into athletes' contracts. But China's leaders appear still less prepared for critical scrutiny of its broader international responsibilities.

China's first instinct has been to complain that sport is being politicised. And so it is: Beijing throughout viewed these Games through the lens of politics. They are a way to promote China and also to shore up the legitimacy of the regime, now that it can no longer rely on the power of ideology to buttress its systems of control. That is why a dissident is facing trial for subversion for nothing more than saying that human rights are more important than the Olympics; and that is the reason for China's fierce crackdown on the media. “Welcome and shut up” cannot be the Olympic slogan. Spielberg has given China a foretaste of the life to come, and not just as hosts to the Olympics this summer. The Middle Kingdom cannot exert its influence so forcefully beyond its borders without acknowledging its impact on the world. With his own individual protest, Spielberg has asked the Chinese State one of the most penetrating questions of our age: what will China use its power for?

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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