(Mis)judgment: Spielberg and the Beijing Olympics

On Feb. 12, film director Steven Spielberg publicly announced his withdrawal as artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games on the grounds of a clash of “conscience.”

This clash, Spielberg said, was due to China’s unwillingness to intervene in the conflict in Darfur, which has since 2003 claimed 200,000 lives. He noted: “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.” This responsibility for China that Spielberg identified was due to China’s significant investment in the region in the petroleum industry and for its support of Khartoum.

Since then China has both objected to Spielberg’s announcement and, in fact, has made several conciliatory gestures to his demands. On Feb. 25, China went against its tradition of noninterventionist diplomacy and called upon Khartoum to allow a joint U.N., African Union peacekeeping force into the region, and for greater cooperation from both the Sudanese government and anti-government forces with the international community to resolve the crisis. Further, China has also agreed with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to resume broader talks with U.S. and E.U. partners on human rights.

While these actions can be seen as extremely positive, and a step in the right direction, I disagree with Spielberg for singling out China as the only culprit in the conflict and for the strong tactics that he has used. This approach is both unfair and unsound.

Unfair since while China does have financial interests in the region, it has only limited authority over Khartoum, and over the past months has actually been pressing the Sudanese government to do more to end the conflict. We also have to remember that the U.S. and E.U. have been unwilling to intervene in the region over the past five years, and that the U.S. has had greater diplomatic sway and involvement in the region than any other nation. Solutions to this crisis should be sought for closer to home.

Unsound, since there are other atrocities and political battles that Spielberg could be more effectively campaigning against. These include American foreign policy in Iraq, detainee rights in Guantanamo Bay, the use of water-boarding as an interrogation technique by the U.S. Military or the lackluster motivation by the U.S. trade representatives to finalize the Doha Round trade agreement–an agreement aimed specifically at bringing economic development to regions such as the Sudan, raising millions out of poverty, vulnerability and dependence.

Spielberg has instead used both his celebrity and the spotlight of the Beijing 2008 Olympics–an Olympics designed to show how far China has come in the last 30 years–to voice his complaints and the criticisms of Mia and Ronan Farrow.

More troubling is that this campaign has also begun to target Western companies involved in the 2008 Olympics such as Adidas (other-otc: ADDDYnews people ), Coca-Cola (nyse: KOnews people ) and General Electric (nyse: GEnews people ). These companies are not only supporting Beijing’s bid for the games but will also help bring broader integration of the Chinese national economy with the global economy in the years ahead. This is an important dynamic, given that China’s growth and its link to the global economy is vital to the economic well-being of Western nations. These companies will also bring jobs and investments, and fill the development gap in Africa and South Asia, meaning that they should be viewed as potential allies rather than with enmity.

Yes, the situation in Darfur is dramatic and unjust, but we have to ask: What have broader American policies achieved in Africa over the last decade? While the Bush administration deserves credit for allocating $9 billion to be invested in development and humanitarian aid through 2010, little has been done to structurally alter African economies–enabling them to become more independent–or African governance, facilitating the Rule of Law and social justice. A long-term development effort is required for troubled African nations, and one that is different from the simple delivery of pharmaceutical drugs that work only as a band-aid solution.

What is required is an investment in infrastructure, Western expertise to create development capacities and the elimination of trade imbalances with the completion of the Doha Round, which offers to bring 32 million people out of extreme poverty by 2015.

Certainly the bloodshed in Darfur needs to be stopped, and the 2 million displaced Sudanese need to be given rightful shelter and security. But how can the situation in Darfur remain stable in the long term without viable economic prospects, sound governance and infrastructure that can be used to care for and educate the next generation of Sudanese? This kind of development requires more tactful diplomacy as well as commitment to real change in the long term.

We have to stop pointing fingers at other nations, making symbolic and hurtful gestures, while not looking first at our own governments, our own policies and our own national ethos. We cannot continue to judge without the expectation of being judged back, or in this case, to further alienate China from engagement in meaningful multilateral peace talks for the region. We also have to recognize that China will be needed by the U.S. and Europe when it comes time to draft a successor agreement to Kyoto. China needs to be brought into this process since it has recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s greatest polluter.

Of course there are many exemplary policy initiatives that have come from the U.S., such as the intervention in Kosovo to stop the Bosnian war; the support of China, India and Russia over the last decade to transform their economies, setting 3 billion people on the road to greater financial stability; and more recently the success of nuclear disarmament in North Korea. Yet there are also initiatives that Americans are not proud of that stretch back decades, even before the prior Bush administration.

The same can be said about China. It, too, is not proud of many parts of its recent history. But with that said, China has also had to find a way to rebuild itself after the Second World War, move past the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and modernize its economy while alleviating the poverty of its 1.3 billion inhabitants. A tall task indeed, and one that is not yet complete.

It is important for us to remember how much China has accomplished over this period, and that while there is much more we should ask of China on the international stage, we also have to recognize that the harmonization of Chinese foreign policy with the traditions and principles of the West is an incremental process.

China in its development needs to be patiently supported, and in this support we will find willing partners to solve a number of these pressing global problems. We all have skeletons in our closets and we have to resist the urge to point fingers.

I, for one, will be in attendance to celebrate the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I hope to see you there, too.

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