Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Spielberg's Boycott

Steven Spielberg has pulled out of his role as an artistic advisor to this summer's Beijing Olympics, in protest at China's involvement in Darfur. The film director accuses the Chinese government of not doing enough to put pressure on its ally Sudan, to sort out the terrible human suffering there. The Sudanese government is widely blamed for backing a militia that has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in its western province of Darfur.

China hasn't done much about Darfur over the last few years, because it relies on Sudan for oil. However, there's plenty western countries could be doing to put more pressure on Sudan too, so it'd be wrong to lay the blame for the continuing crisis solely at Beijing's door. But Mr Spielberg's decision will certainly bother China. The regime in Beijing is putting so much effort into making the Olympics a success, to show off their country, that any criticism will really hit the Chinese government where it hurts.

Things would start to look worse for China if top athletes, or major corporate sponsors, joined Mr Spielberg's boycott. That still seems pretty unlikely. This was an easy decision for Mr Spielberg to make - after all he's not short of a bob or two anyway, and had never actually signed a contract committing him to this Olympics job. It's much harder to imagine athletes who have trained for years to go to the Olympics giving that up for political reasons. That's proved by the experience of the 1980 Moscow Games, when Britain ummed and aahed about whether to join America's boycott in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, then backed down because of angry athletes.

So, Mr Spielberg's decision is probably not going to change anything, apart from making himself feel better. It's still fair enough for him to make his boycott though, as you can't expect people to go against their own conscience. But the greater cause of making China behave better both in its own country and around the world would be better served by letting the Olympics go ahead with everyone there, and the focus of the world on Beijing. Dragging China blinking into the light would be the best way of forcing change, not just in Darfur, but in Tibet and elsewhere too.

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