Steven Spielberg to Quit as Beijing Olympics Adviser over Darfur?

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So, Steven Spielberg may quit his position as artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympics if China does not take a harder line against Sudan over Darfur. So far this possibility is based on comments by a Spielberg spokesman that “Steven” will determine his position in a few weeks but “Our main interest is ending the genocide.,” etc etc (story here).

This sounds a little vague, but t me it’s a blindingly clear signal to China from Spielberg that he is thinking seriously of bailing out. I was speaking to some of the organizers of the Darfur campaign earlier this week and they warned me to expect an announcement of some sort. It may not be as strong as they would have liked, but it’s a big deal nevertheless. Spielberg is a big name but the broader implications are much bigger than him. As I’ve said on this blog before, Beijing is in for a shock at the extent to which activists of all stripes will try to use the Olympics as leverage. The reason is simple: everyone knows how desperately he Communist party leadership wants the Games to go smoothly, which makes them extremely vulnerable to pressure. I think they’ve miscalculated with Darfur, too, and don’t grasp to what extent the campaign has garnered popular support in the U.S., where you’ve got soccer moms doing grassroots organizing and NBA stars and 108 congressmen sending threatening letters on the issue to the Chinese Embassy. The next step, activists say, is to take that pressure to the Olympic sponsors and also to start a divestment campaign against U.S. listed Chinese companies, of which of course there are many. The sponsors are obsessively preoccupied with their public image (Coca Cola is an obvious example, along with GE, Johnson & Johnson etc ) and the minute they think they are going to be associated with genocide, they’ll sprint for the doors. Beijing has miscalculated but still, in my opinion, doesn’t know what is going to hit them.

“We say to the Chinese, ‘we know you think this is your moment to step onto the world stage but we are going to rain on your parade,'” until action is taken, I was told earlier in the week by Eric Reeves, the professor of English Literature at Smith College who started the whole thing back in January. Reeves (he and the other members of the Save Darfur Coalition emphasize by the way, that they aren’t calling for a boycott of the Olympics, just trying to put pressure for change on China; the boycott thing is squarely on actress Mia Farrow) says he and his supporters have only just begun to fight: “We’re roaring along. The Chinese know more pressure is coming and they are afraid.”

According to Yan Xuetong, who heads the Institute of International Studies at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Beijing already has reacted to the pressure over Darfur. In April, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Darfur regime should “be more flexible” and consider the U.N. peace plan for the region, a call Reeves of Smith called “unprecedented” from a country whose foreign policy is built on the principle that a country’s internal affairs should never be subject to interference from outsiders. Then in early July, Khartoum announced that it would accept a proposed United Nations peacekeeping force that would intervene to stop the fighting in Darfur, a move it had staunchly resisted in the past, a decision that was widely seen as directly arising from Chinese pressure.

But if Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua is right, Beijing may have already done all it can–or will. “China will never change its fundamental problem of non-intervention in internal affairs. If they did it could legitimize intervention by the U.N. in matters such as Taiwan,” something that would be total anathema. Gut instinct screams that he’s right and Beijing won’t go any further, at least in public. The possibility of a boycott is still remote for many reasons but, with campaigners full of moral certainty and self-righteous zeal running headlong into a an unmovable Chinese foreign policy Wall, things could get messy very quickly.