Beijing’s Olympic battleground

Human rights activists take on China

One of the biggest matchups at the Beijing Olympics promises to be wrestling. Not the grappling of athletes, but the bouts between China and human rights activists.

So far, China has shown its ability to deal with challengers without breaking a sweat.

Steven Spielberg’s Feb. 12 announcement that he was quitting as artistic adviser to the Olympics provided the first real test of how China plans to defend itself against critics who say it’s using the games as a propaganda exercise.

After much closed-door deliberation, the government waited to respond. But on Feb. 14, at a regular news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao sniffed: “It is understandable if some people do not understand the Chinese government policy on Darfur. But I am afraid that some people may have ulterior motives, and this we cannot accept.”

The Beijing Olympic Committee warned, “Linking the Darfur issue to the Olympic Games will not help to resolve this issue and is not in line with the Olympic spirit that separates sports from politics.”

Spielberg is not likely to be the last protester. Activists are keen to spotlight the communist government’s curbs on human rights, press freedoms and religion, as well as its policies in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

And Hollywood stars, from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to George Clooney and Don Cheadle, have made Darfur a personal cause. Whether they’re able to get other celebs to boycott the Games or to turn the event into a platform remains to be seen.

The spotlight does raise some potentially sticky issues for sponsors, who are phobic about controversies.

The Olympics has 12 worldwide sponsors: Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Atos Origin, General Electric, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.

But if they were going to pull out, they would have done it by now. Most were pushing their tie-ins as early as 2006.

And while they may dislike controversy, the halo effect of being part of the Olympics is too valuable to pass up — and so is the opportunity to do business with China’s 1.3 billion people.

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