Olympic-sized Headache

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The actress Mia Farrow has got herself into the news by calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics (she called them the “Genocide Olympics”) because of China’s support for the government of Sudan, which is widely accused of involvement in the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region. This isn’t the first time there has been a call for a boycott over Darfur, where any estimated 200,000 have died in attacks blamed mostly on government-backed rebels. According to AFP, French centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou last week also called for a boycott of the 2008 Games. Needless to say, the Chinese are not amused. “People who try to connect the Olympics with Darfur in an attempt to win ballots or increase their prestige or reputation are totally wrong on that scheme,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang was quoted as saying by AFP. Relatively mild sounding, but if the press briefing had morphed into a cartoon a la Roger Rabbit (there’s a novel thought), I bet Qin would have had steam coming out of his ears.

Still, this is only an early sign of what is to come. Qin and other senior Chinese officials had better get used to people leveraging the Olympics to try and put pressure on Beijing. Chinese officials have made it almost embarrassingly clear that they are desperate to put on a smooth Games that will be a showcase for the country’s re-emergence onto the world stage. And that desperation makes them vulnerable. I can’t think of a single activist/petitioner/lawyer etc that I have talked with in the last year who didn;t stress what a great opportunity the imminent Games provided to squeeze concessions out of the usually unsqueezable government. Some specifically said they planned actions or campaigns as the Games grow closer. “I really don’t think they understand what they have let loose, what is coming,” one human rights activists told me with a degree of glee. Then the question becomes, will the senior cadres grin and bear it or will they crack, revert to old habits and toss a bunch of people in the pokey? Stay tuned.