Beijing's Spielberg Problem

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Steven Spielberg and Chinese director Zhang Yimou admire a model of an Olympic stadium in Beijing.

By the numbers, Beijing's preparations for the Summer Olympics are formidable. With less than six months to go before the August 8 opening ceremonies, 30 of the 31 competition sites and 44 of the 45 training venues have been completed. Organizers hold regular press conferences trumpeting progress on everything from sewage treatment to cloud seeding. But no amount of preparation has readied Beijing for the protest and criticism the Games are attracting.

That was made clear this week when director Steven Spielberg announced he was quitting his role as a creative consultant for the Games' opening and closing ceremonies. The Hollywood filmmaker cited Beijing's failure to press its ally and trading partner Sudan to end the fighting in Darfur, where as many as 400,000 people have died and 2.5 million displaced in fighting between rebel groups, the government and government-backed militias. Spielberg, the director of such films as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, had written letters to Chinese President Hu Jintao urging him to take more action to encourage Sudan to resolve the conflict. Despite what he called "some progress," the movie mogul said the continuing bloodshed meant he couldn't continue his work for the Games. "Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these on-going crimes," he wrote, "but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there."

Spielberg's departure is bad news for China. "They are trying to have a perfect Games and present a picture of unmitigated success to the world," says Nicholas Bequelin of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "And here is something that is not a success."

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed regret over Spielberg's decision on Thursday, while the Beijing Games organizing committee noted that "linking the Darfur issue to the Olympic Games will not help to resolve this issue and is not in line with the Olympic Spirit that separates sports from politics." But those responses came nearly two days after Spielberg announced his decision to withdraw, adding yet another news cycle to an issue Beijing clearly wanted to go away. "They need to learn to do a better job of this, there's no doubt," says David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, of how Beijing has handled the setback. "It's always funny how a country that is so sensitive to propaganda can't do a good job of its own international propaganda."

Part of the issue is that the Summer Games are no mere sporting event for China. Even though Beijing demands the event not be politicized, it is using the Games to demonstrate that China has returned to its rightful place as a world player whose opinion matters. As long as the government ties China's global prestige to the success of the event, so it will be stung by any slights or failures. That's a position Beijing's opponents are learning to exploit. "The more the government gives political priority to the Games, the more the international political pressure on the Chinese government will increase," says Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University. Indeed, given the success of the Darfur campaign, it is inevitable that other protests will follow on Tibet, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and China's support of Burma's ruling junta. Activists have also raised human rights issues like the jailing of Chinese journalists and activists like Hu Jia, who was detained in December over accusations of "incitement to subvert state power."

Having succeeded in turning Spielberg to their cause, Darfur campaigners are now trying to convince other stars such as director Ang Lee, who is also an artistic advisor to the Games, and producer Quincy Jones, who has been recruited to write a theme song. A group of Nobel laureates, actors and athletes wrote an open letter to President Hu coinciding with Spielberg's resignation, calling on Beijing to do more to promote peace in the war-ravaged region. And large corporate sponsors, such as General Electric, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, are also being lobbied to urge Beijing to do more for Darfur. While U.S. President George W. Bush told the BBC this week that he still plans to attend the Games, if another big name follows Spielberg out the door, China could see its Olympic dreams irreparably tarnished. "If that kind of thing happens, then it is clearly a big problem," says Zweig. "If it triggers other people to pull out, whether sponsors or advisors, then this could be a much bigger issue."