Spielberg helps spoil China's hope for a politics-free Olympics
The Hollywood director resigned this week as artistic adviser to the Beijing games to protest China's Darfur policy.
The Chinese government insists that next summer's Olympic Games are not political. A senior official said as much again on Thursday.Skip to next paragraph
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Yang Chunlin has cause to disagree.
Mr. Yang, a social activist arrested recently for distributing a petition titled "We Don't Want the Olympic Games, We Want Human Rights," goes on trial next week, charged with the eminently political crime of "inciting subversion of state power." He faces up to five years in jail.
Politics has burst onto the Olympic scene front and center – complicating Beijing's plans for a trouble-free coming-out party in August – with Steven Spielberg's resignation this week as artistic adviser to the Beijing games in protest of China's Darfur policy.
Mr. Spielberg accused Beijing of not putting enough pressure on its ally, the Sudanese government, to help end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. "My conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," he said in a statement.
Despite Chinese officials' insistence that political issues should not interfere in this year's Olympic Games, it is unsurprising that they have. Within China, a one-party state, almost every aspect of society is politicized. Abroad, many activist groups object to one aspect or another of Chinese government policy.
"China is particularly vulnerable and particularly politically sensitive" to outside criticism, says David Zweig, head of the Center for China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"They do lots of things the world does not particularly like, and they are very sensitive to what the world thinks," Professor Zweig adds. "They have made it to world-class status and they are getting dumped on."
As foreign critics of Chinese policy on a range of issues – from Taiwanese independence to Tibet and from Darfur to press freedoms – gear up to use the Olympic Games as leverage in their campaigns, Beijing is handicapped by its lack of skills in handling dissenters. At home, they have simply suppressed them.
Officials say they are ready to deal with political opponents. "We have heard voices from all sides," said Jiang Xiaoyu, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) last year. "[There] will be more and more of these kinds of voices and maybe more resonant. We are mentally prepared."
But it took the Foreign Ministry two days to respond to Spielberg's bombshell, suggesting a low level of readiness.
"The government was intellectually aware" of the likelihood of political problems surrounding the games, says Sidney Rittenberg, a China expert who knows the country's top leaders personally. "But I don't think they had real flesh-and-blood understanding of it. The gathering storm will come as a bit of a shock."
Politics have intruded on many past Games, starting in 1906, when an Irish medal winner climbed the flagpole to tear down the British flag that had been raised in his honor, in the days before Irish independence.