Monday, December 28, 2009

Steven Spielberg quits as cultural advisor to games: A sign of further protests?

This is an old story but a good one all the same.
EVENT: Steven Spielberg resigns as Olympic Cultural Advisor over China’s lack of diplomatic efforts in solving the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.

SIGNIFICANCE: With Spielberg’s resignation and increasing global concern over Tibet, protests at the 2008 Olympic Games seem increasingly likely. Spielberg’s resignation as cultural advisor to the Games has highlighted the lobbying done by several Human Rights Organisations (such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and smaller specific groups such as Team Darfur and Dream for Darfur) in regards to the conflict and China’s relationship to the Sudanese Government. With conflict likely to occur, China might well try to limit freedom of speech and especially regarding their nation’s political record. Australia’s policy of allowing freedom of free speech to all its athletes, any retraction on the expression of ideas would limit Team Australia’s pursuit of recording their experience and their thoughts. More importantly, Australia has a moral responsibility to encourage China to do what it can to promote a quick solution to the conflict.


Background to China’s involvement in Sudan

For quite a while now, ‘China has played a critical role in the oil-felled boom in Sedan. After Bashier [Sudan’s Head of State] visited President Jiang Zemin in 1995, co-operation blossomed. Sudan now supplies 10% of China’s oil. Production has risen from 500,000 barrels-per-day….This year’s revenue from oil will exceed $4 billion’ . As a result from such an involvement, many in the international community believe that China should lobby the Sudanese Government to resolve the conflict in Darfur.

Why Director Steven Spielberg resigned

In a statement to the Chinese Ambassador and Chinese Olympic Committee, Spielberg argued that ‘Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there….China's economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change.’ He strongly believes that China’s involvement in the region leaving them in a position to promote peace and reconciliation among the waring parties.

Global pressure has so far not deterred the Chinese’s current strategy as they continue to support the trade arms with the war-ravaged country (having sold the Sudanese authorities $55 million during the 2003 – 2006 period ) as well as act as a major importer of their oil recourses. There are no signs of any change in approach as a result of global pressure to do so despite the fact that the world’s eyes will be upon them in August.

In response to Spielberg’s comments, a Chinese official in America states that "As the Darfur issue is neither an internal issue of China nor is it caused by China, it is completely unreasonable, irresponsible and unfair to link the two as one.’ This highlights the strategy used by the Chinese to avoid any responsibility for participating in the conflict in the Sudan and their attempt to reduce the number of negative political issued discussed during the lead up to the games. However, this is unlikely to deter individuals and human rights organisations from protesting, unless the Chinese make drastic changes to their approach – which seems unlikely.

Other forms of protests being undertaken by Political Institutions

There are several UN Security Council resolutions that deal with the issue of China’s involvement in Sudan; however, since China is a permanent member of the Council, it is unlikely that they will be passed.

What is done by Non-Government Organisations and other Activists

Since the uprising in Tibet in recent days, there have been renewed reports concerning China’s political stances. Such as Activists will demonstrate in Beijing during the Olympics to press China to help end bloodshed in Darfur, a group said Thursday, adding to the government's public relations headaches as it tries to quell protests in Tibet.’

To be more specific, these groups have announced that ‘We are planning some actions during the games themselves in Beijing," Dream for Darfur's executive director, Jill Savitt, said in a conference call with reporters. Savitt said the group was keeping details secret "for fear we would not be able to pull off those events.’ While these are only two groups, it is presumed that they will not be the only ones that are planning protests at the games.

Having looked at the Dream for Darfur’s website, it appears that much for their action seems to be surrounding the provision of information and lobby as well as physical protest, however due to the Chinese crackdown on descent, details of any action, is at present, unclear. But they take the interesting approach of asking the sponsors of the games (such as Coke a Cola, McDonalds and Rolex) to also pressure the Chinese Government into action. There are also broadcasts from refugee camps by actress Mia Farrow and an invitation to the public to refrain from watching the sponsors’ commercials on television.

While these actions might not work in Western Countries, in image conscious China where loosing face must be avoided at all costs, negative campaigns could be what is needed to ensure that the government does something to solve the conflict.

It is also important to remember that many Athletes will also have opinions and express their views on political views. After originally banning their athletes from saying anything, the British have allowed their athletes to speak publicly and the Australians are given freedom of speech and opinion so some athletes may choose to speak out on a range of issues.

Team Darfur is a good example of athlete taking action to bring global attention to particular issue. The organisation began when Olympic Gold medallists speed skater Joey Cheek and UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner ‘$1 million in 2006 when he announced he would donate his medal bonuses to relief in Darfur, and encouraged other athletes and sponsors to do the same’ . Their approach is not so much “causing trouble and embarrassment” to the Chinese Government, although they would prefer them to change their policies but they seem to lead by example by donating their prize money to helping the Sudanese Children. They are also strong in proving information regarding the relationship between the Chinese Government and Sudanese Authorities.

Conclusion: The Olympic Games, despite the ideal of being above politics, will always attract protest and scrutiny of the host country. However, some countries attract more scrutiny than other and China, with its poor human rights record (both nationally and internationally); will no doubt have experience high levels of critique and protest.

Steven Spielberg’s resignation will be among the first acts of protest in the lead up to the games and there will be protests not only in regards to the Chinese – Sudanese relationship but also regarding China’s human rights record.

However, there are reports that ‘China's envoy for Darfur, Liu Guijin, began a five-day visit to the country to push for peace. China has come under increasing pressure to use its influence with Sudan to end the fighting…..‘My [Mr Liu, China’s envoy to Darfur] message to the media and to the world is that the Chinese government and people are ready to help Sudan and to help the international community to find the solution of the Darfur issue", he said. ’ .

The article continues to state that the recent developments have not persuaded Steven Spielberg to reconsider his position.

While the Chinese Government might be reluctant to be active in bringing about peace, they are in a perfect position to do so and Australia should continue to pressure to them to use their influence to make a difference in the conflict in Sudan.

References available on request

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