Steven SpielbergSteven Spielberg's announcement mid-week that he had resigned as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympic Committee, just six months out from the Games, is probably the biggest embarrassment faced so far by China's Central Government as it prepares for what many commentators have dubbed "China's coming out party". Spielberg joins a growing number of world celebrities, politicians and athletes who are pressing China to take action to stop human rights atrocities in Darfur in particular, but to also adopt a more responsible foreign policy stance in other African trouble spots.

Critical questions that need to be asked are what, if anything, can China really do to affect change in Africa? What's stopping it from taking action? And what pressure can human rights activists and foreign governments bring to bear on Beijing?

Jesse Owens was able to embarrass Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games by
beating his super-race athletes on the track. China will only be
pressured into action when significant numbers of star-power athletes
announce a withdrawal from the Games.

Out of Africa

China has a large and growing economic relationship with much of Africa. In the 10 years to 2005, two-way trade between China and Africa increased tenfold to US$32 billion.

With China's economy growing by an average nine per cent a year for the past decade, Africa has become an important source of mineral resources, agricultural products, timber and, most important of all, oil. The record prices currently being paid for mineral resources and oil are largely due to China's insatiable appetite for them, and the counter-balance has been a spur to economic growth in Africa. From Angola to Zambia many African countries have been direct beneficiaries of Chinese economic demand. Economic growth in much of Africa this year is expected to reach six per cent, largely due to China's demand for what those countries have to sell.

Countries with oil have been doing particularly well. Angola replaced Saudi Arabia as China's largest source of oil a few years ago, and China has won licenses to explore for oil in a number of other African countries leading to major oil investments in Nigeria and Sudan. In the ten years to 2005, Sudan's share of exports that went to China rose from 10 per cent to more than 70 per cent. Some countries, like Burkina Faso, send all of their exports of cotton to just one country — China.

China is also a major donor to many African countries, although often its aid is tied. However, while multilateral institutions like the World Bank and many Western governments tie aid to political and economic reform, China ties its aid to economic recompense. The Asian giant promises investment and aid to African countries in return for oil exploration and development rights. It has forgiven much of the debt owed it by African countries and in return gets access to their oil.

China undoubtedly has leverage over Africa and has directly benefited from it. But is it prepared to use its leverage to achieve political and human rights changes?

Sudan, Zimbabwe and now Kenya provide answers to that question.

When the true horror of Darfur became clear to the world many foreign oil companies opted to leave Sudan, pressured by activists and governments in North America and Europe. China's state-owned oil companies felt no such pressure and quickly stepped into the breach. China soon became the single largest investor in Sudan, mainly in its oil sector. Military hardware followed, soon becoming a major export.

When the West turned its back on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe he turned to China and found a key ally. China was able to muzzle all debate in the UN Security Council on policies that left more than 700,000 of the country's citizens without their homes and businesses. Of course, Zimbabwe had little to offer China by way of minerals or oil. The price exacted by China was Zimbabwe's ongoing recognition of China over Taiwan as Beijing seeks to isolate politically what it calls "the rebel province". More and more African countries, many of them dictatorships with poor human rights records, are bought over with aid from the mainland.

Blood diamonds

More recently China has refrained from joining the rest of the world in trying to resolve the crisis in Kenya. Rather, it has been critical of the West's attempts to resolve the issue, portraying it as neo-colonialism and interference in another country's domestic issues. Indeed, Beijing has gone further and placed its full support behind Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki who has refused to compromise with the country's opposition parties and hold a new election. China's response was summarized in an editorial of the Government's flagship newspaper, People's Daily, which said: "Western-style democratic theory isn't suited to African conditions but rather it carries with it the root of disaster. The election crisis in Kenya is just one example."

Those words almost certainly give carte blanche to China's friends in Africa, an assortment of tin-pot dictators, to do as they wish without fear of repercussion from their main benefactor. The West had best start preparing for the troubles and tribulations that may yet occur in Africa; let's hope no dominant tribe with a machete to wield against some other tribe is sitting on a vast lake of oil, or the bloodbaths of Rwanda and Darfur could pale into insignificance.

Why is China so reluctant to use its leverage in Africa to influence positive change?

The answer to that lies with the government's determination to keep the West from meddling in what it sees as its internal issues. For China, this cuts to the very heart of a number of matters ranging from democratization of the political process and transparency of government, to human rights abuses. From censorship of the media right through to corruption in government, torture of dissidents and harvesting organs from executed criminals — many of whom have been denied due legal process — China's record is appalling.

Therefore, in Beijing's view, for it to try and influence African nations on their "internal" problems would expose China to the same "interference" in its "internal affairs". China is not going to hand the West the rationale for further involvement in China's affairs.

So what can be done by the global community to bring about a more responsible approach to international affairs by the world's next superpower?

The snows of Mount Olympus

China is usually critical of those it claims are trying to "politicize the Olympics" by drawing attention to its human rights record, occupation of Tibet, or role in Africa. Its delayed response to Steven Spielberg's announcement — "I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue business as usual" (Bravo, Mr Spielberg.) — shows it has had to think carefully about how to deal with this latest effort. Beijing responded late Thursday by criticizing the West's attempts to link Darfur to the Olympics and blamed what it called the West's "media hegemony". It went on to say it is doing much to alleviate the crisis in Darfur but added that "empty rhetoric", presumably referring to protests by Spielberg and others, would not help.

But will the withdrawal of a world celebrity, and even some athletes, change Beijing's approach to Darfur (and other African countries)? Not yet, to judge by yesterday's response.

To date, a few athletes have announced their withdrawal from the Beijing Games because of concerns over human rights abuses in China, the occupation of Tibet, support for African dictatorships and, most of all, support for the Sudan government which has presided over the death of more than 200,000 people and displacement of 2.5 million of its citizens. These athletes of conscience are to be praised for their courage and selflessness. Unfortunately, they are too few. Nor are any of them prominent enough in the main track and field or swimming events to have any real impact.

Jesse Owens was able to embarrass Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games by beating his super-race athletes on the track. China will only be pressured into action when significant numbers of star-power athletes announce a withdrawal from the Games.

However, that seems unlikely. Star-power athletes who have been training for four years to prepare for the biggest event in their chosen sports are unlikely to walk away from the Games, no matter how noble the cause. Even when Jimmy Carter announced a US boycott of the Moscow Games of 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, large numbers of American athletes cried foul. And while some 64 nations supported the US boycott, Britain, France and Italy chose to send their teams to Moscow despite supporting the international condemnation of the invasion.

It's just too hard to get governments and athletes to boycott the Olympics. Indeed, some countries' Olympic organisations have gone so far as to warn athletes against protesting and speaking out on sensitive issues while in China. The British Olympic Association became the latest to try and muzzle its athletes but was forced to back down when they protested. Still, while some 50 former and current Olympic athletes have joined Team Darfur, an activist group trying to pressure Beijing, and plan to make their voice heard in Beijing, they are unlikely to have any real impact in China. Any statements they make will most likely go unreported in the local media. Good as their intentions are, they will be ineffectual once they have run their events.

But the Olympics are the only real leverage the world has over China right now. Its economy is too big and its market too important for companies to attempt any economic penalties. The only questions that remain are whether it is right to politicize the Olympics, and, if it is permissible, how to do it.

Truth be told, the Olympics are political by their very nature and have been since the days of the Ancient Games when Pisa and Elis went to war (668-669 BC) for the honour of hosting the games, and the Heraea Games were held to allow women to compete in 175 AD. Hosting such events has always brought political prestige to the host city and nation. Importantly, in 1980 China had no compunction about politicising the Olympics; keen to contain Soviet expansion into Asia it joined the US boycott of the Moscow Games. The emperor has no clothes.

For a rising China, one that feels it was robbed of the 2000 Olympic Games, this really is a "coming out party". Visitors to Beijing will see a nation transformed from agrarian poverty to industrial might; they will see Beijing's steel and glass towers and feel the economic vibrancy of an emerging economic powerhouse. The Olympics are therefore very important to China and remain the only way to effect any change in Beijing on issues of global significance.

The way to really impact the Games is through the corporations that have paid millions of dollars for sponsorship rights. These sponsors are looking forward to their logos being seen by more than one billion people around the world when the curtain is raised on the Beijing Olympics in August. Activists are already planning to target them with protests outside their global headquarters and by encouraging people to turn their backs on their TV advertisements. That's a good start. But if they really want to push these corporations to do something, activists need to encourage consumers to stop buying the products of the sponsors. By hitting the sponsors where it hurts, they might be able to hurt Beijing. It would be a major blow to Beijing if international sponsors pulled their advertising during the Games, both in China and outside.

Is it likely to happen? When it comes to money, China is not the only one who places business above politics. The modern Olympics cannot be politicized because, it would seem, corporations don't believe in interfering in the internal affairs of nation states, either. Corporate social responsibility, anyone?

In the meantime, the tragedy in Darfur continues. And China is now busy cozying up to the military junta in Myanmar. I guess there's oil somewhere there.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.