THE PLANK FEBRUARY 13, 2008
Yesterday, Steven Spielberg announced that he is withdrawing from his role as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in order to protest China's link to the Darfur genocide. Spielberg is certainly correct that Beijing has supplied Khartoum with weapons, money, and diplomatic cover. And anything that embarrasses Beijing over this morally indefensible support for Sudan is a positive development. In that respect, good for Spielberg.
Yet Spielberg's statement announcing his decision bothered me--for reasons having nothing to do with Darfur. While condemning China for its actions in Sudan, Spielberg made no mention of China's actions anywhere else--as if Darfur were the only reason one might think twice about serving as a propagandist for the Beijing Olympics; as if, were it not for Darfur, he would be happy to continue working with a country that "has much to offer the world" and whose "international contributions will grow in the years ahead." This reminded me of a statement Spielberg's spokesman made last year, which had stuck in my mind. When the controversy over Spielberg's role as an artistic advisor to the Olympics first surfaced, his spokesman noted that it was "only recently that he became aware of China's involvement" in Darfur. Look, I suppose it's possible Spielberg was unaware of China's role in Darfur before early 2007. But was he also unaware of China's role in China? This is an authoritarian regime that has long repressed internal dissent--and, as Josh Kurlantzick writes in the new issue of TNR, is growing even more brutal as the Olympics approach. Surely, even if Spielberg knew little or nothing of China's actions in Sudan, he was aware that Chinese citizens lack basic rights that we in the west take for granted. Surely he knew that China is desperate to portray itself as a far more humane place than it really is. Surely he realized that promoting the Olympics meant playing a role in this ugly farce. Yet, even now, Spielberg implies that he is only troubled by China's link to Darfur. Well, that's a good thing to be troubled by, and, on the list of Beijing's sins, the destruction of Darfur certainly ranks high. But, not only have China's leaders betrayed the people of Darfur, they have also betrayed the people of China. It seems to me that, Darfur aside, anyone who cares even a little about human rights would have refused to work with China's government on a project meant to serve partially as a propaganda coup for the regime.
The point is broader than Steven Spielberg. The Olympics are fast approaching. Will western athletes, commentators, and corporations allow themselves to be made complicit in Beijing's abuse of human rights by delivering to China exactly what it wants--a controversy-free Olympic Games that serves to legitimize China's authoritarian government on the world stage? Or will they speak out about China's abuses--in Darfur, in Burma, elsewhere, and at home? Spielberg's approach--implying that Beijing is an essentially good government that is guilty of doing one bad thing--leaves a lot to be desired. Among other problems, it simply isn't true.