February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008 | Commentary on Africa

Darfur First

It is not often that one has occasion to applaud political pronouncements coming out of Hollywood. It is usually enough to turn your opinion in the opposite direction when you watch the parade of Hollywood celebrities on Capitol Hill, brought in to testify for no other reason than their talent in front of the camera.

Of equal concern is the effect the entertainment culture has on American society at large. A frequent traveler to Singapore recently remarked that people there are afraid of the effect American movies and television have on the stability of their families - a concern shared with many American parents. "American culture is known over there as a Brittany Spears culture," he said. Shudder.

And yet, once in a while one of Hollywood's big names takes a stand on principle, and that deserves recognition when it can make a real difference.

Stephen Spielberg's announcement that he is withdrawing after two years as an advisor to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is one such stand, and it is both responsible and heartwarming. The reason is the Chinese government's failure to intervene with the government of Sudan to stop the genocide being perpetrated in Darfur. Mr. Spielberg and other Hollywood celebrities - like Mia Farrow, who has been promoting the phrase "the genocide Olympics" - now ask that Beijing be held up to the same standard as other major players on the international scene: measured not just by their economic progress but also by their respect for human dignity.

In a letter to the Independent of London, a group of Nobel laureates and athletes echoed similar sentiments to the distress of the British Olympic Association, which much like the Chinese government would have preferred no controversial issues raised.

China is Sudan's major trading partner, purchasing most of the country's oil exports and purveying arms to the government in Khartoum. It is therefore also the country with the greatest leverage with the government in Khartoum. China has, however, consistently refused to exert any kind of leverage to put an end to the genocide in Darfur, which has cost an estimated 200,000 people their lives.

Even more outrageously, China has until very recently blocked even a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur in order to protect its Sudanese ally. The burned villages, the mass rapes, the population displacement in the region is a situation that has become the Rwanda or the Kosovo of this decade. In this, China has been playing a low-key obstructionist game.

As China is aspiring to major-power status, the undesirable publicity over the Olympics presents its leaders with a sticky problem. China is increasingly becoming known as an alternative to the United States as an international player - a great economic power without the preachiness on values that sometimes drive U.S. allies up the wall. With an abysmal human-rights record of its own, Beijing has no desire to intervene in the affairs of other countries. In fact, it precisely gains a tactical advantage from this live-and-let-die attitude.

By contrast, the United States (and some European countries) keep making demands on their partners, and sometimes threaten to leverage foreign aid, trade privileges, etc. to seek improvements in human rights and political openness.

Would the Chinese have cared when President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan suspended elections after the murder of his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in December? Of course not. China does not have elections at the national level. As an official told the Economist magazine, democracy would slow down China's vast infrastructure progress.

While the U.S. government does at least make an attempt to pressure China on human rights, too many countries are inclined to give it a pass in the interest of trade with this emerging vast consumer society. And even Washington has its limitations.

Since China's accession to the World Trade Organization, it is no longer possible to link trade sanctions with human rights. This was possible when China's human-rights record was under annual review by Congress before Most Favored Nation Trade status (as it was then known) for China was renewed each year following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Today, we are limited often to symbolic actions. Which is where Mr. Spielberg comes in. Symbols are what Hollywood is all about and could be just what is needed to put the Chinese leaders on the spot.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Africa

First appeared in the Washington Times