LONDON - China can expect more outbursts by celebrities and athletes angry at its perceived support for Sudan but opinion is divided over whether such action ahead of the Beijing Olympics will have any impact on Chinese policy.
Campaigners say the withdrawal of film director Steven Spielberg as artistic adviser to the Games in August is a sign of things to come for the Chinese organizers.
“The Olympics is China’s debutante ball - their chance to announce themselves on the international stage,” said Save Darfur spokesman Allyn Brooks-LaSure.
“If things in Darfur don’t change, it is going to get more high profile, more embarrassing, more lonely.”
Mr. Spielberg said his conscience would not allow him to continue working and he pledged to spend his time and energy not on Olympic ceremonies, but on trying to end the “unspeakable crimes against humanity” in Darfur.
On Monday, nine Nobel Peace Prize winners wrote a letter to China asking it to uphold the Olympic ideals by pressuring Sudan over Darfur.
China is accused by critics of shielding Khartoum in the face of international efforts to send peacekeepers to Darfur. It says the Games should not be politicized and any link made between Darfur and the Olympics is irresponsible and unfair.
Amnesty International said it wanted prominent international actors to use the Olympics to raise concerns over rights issues in China, including the widespread use of execution, labour camps and attacks on rights workers.
But with its high profile celebrity activists such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow, Darfur is likely to dominate the agenda in the lead-up to the Aug. 8-24 Games.
China says it is unreasonable to blame it for killings and displacement in Sudan’s west. Campaigners such as the Save Darfur coalition say Chinese weapons sales and oil purchases give it enough clout to get Khartoum to halt atrocities.
“As human rights defenders we can only play on conscience, but China has to respond to the demands of the international community,” lawyer Salih Osman, the winner of the European Union’s top prize for human rights, said.
“International opinion necessitates that China should at least listen about what is going on,” Mr. Osman said.
Activists say Chinese officials have been happy to listen to their concerns but taken too little concrete action on Darfur.
China could even face the prospect of athletes using the event to raise the issue. Some international athletes have joined Team Darfur, a collection of sportspeople pushing for greater action.
“It’s a very tough to keep a polite silence about a conflict that continues to cost so many lives,” British badminton player Richard Vaughan told the Times newspaper.
“This is exactly what the Games are created to talk about,” American Joey Cheek, Olympic gold medallist at the 2006 Turin Winter Games, told reporters.
International experts say some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million fled their homes in more than four years of conflict since local rebels took up arms against the government, prompting the government to mobilize mainly Arab militias.
The British Olympic Committee inserted a clause in its contract for athletes going to Beijing that was described by newspapers as effectively a “gagging order.” After protests, it was dropped.
“We won’t be blocking anyone’s right to free speech,” she said. “But we hope that when they are in Beijing the athletes will be using their energy for training, not anything else.”
Campaigners say they believe the process labelling Beijing’s as a “Genocide Olympics” helped push China to agree to a United Nations resolution to send a UN peacekeeping force to replace a smaller African Union mission in Darfur.
But the force has been slow to deploy and violence in the region has spiked, with refugees and instability spreading into neighbouring Chad.
“I think (by the Olympics) things will be very much the same as they are now,” said Wolfram Lacher, Sudan analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks.
“China has been very resistant to this sort of pressure. I don’t think it will have any effect.”