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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.

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Some officials have acknowledged as much. "It is not only an international sports event, but also a very important political mission," stated a 2006 opinion article in the People's Daily. "It is not only an Olympic feast for the Chinese people, it can also arouse Chinese patriotism."

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An awareness of how much the Games mean to China, and a fear of upsetting the authorities, appear to have been behind a plan by the British Olympic Association, revealed last weekend, to make British athletes sign a contract pledging not to comment on "politically sensitive issues" in Beijing.

In the wake of an uproar, the BOA says it will reword the contract to conform to the Olympic charter, which says: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." It does not forbid athletes from expressing opinions elsewhere.

Other groups are less worried about riling the Chinese. "If the Games show China emerging as a world power, it's fair to raise questions about their complicity in Darfur," says Allyn Brooks-LaSure, spokesman for the Save Darfur Coalition. He adds that "As soon as we started talking about the Olympic Games, there was at least a response from the Chinese. It is clear they are hearing what we are saying."

Campaigners on other issues, such as Tibetan rights, human rights abuses, and religious persecution, are gearing up to use the Olympics as a stick with which to beat Beijing, but the government issued them a stern warning two weeks ago.

"Those who always look at China through dark glasses have produced a sort of baffling excitement," an editorial in the People's Daily declared. Activists who say that "they can exert enough pressure to force China into a position where it cannot help but act according to their wishes … have clearly miscalculated."

Others are not so sure. International pressure "might make some difference" says Mr. Rittenberg. "Those in the leadership who are sensitive to these issues feel strengthened."

Still, he says, "the net result is more negative than positive," given how proud most ordinary Chinese are that their country is hosting the Games. "Indignation at Spielberg is going to be almost universal.

"If the games are substantially damaged" by any snowball effect from Spielberg's resignation, Rittenberg warns, "that is going to cause immense resentment among ordinary Chinese at what they see as unjust foreign interference."

For Darfur advocates, the ball is in China's court. "We will continue pushing till there's a response from China that makes a difference" says Mr. Brooks-LaSure. "The Chinese are going to see and hear a crescendo of activism as the games get closer."

"Beijing is going to have to start thinking how to react well and intelligently" to such pressure, says Zweig. "They are going to be confronting this kind of thing all the time."