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18 February 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Darfur and the Olympics

The Chinese are supporting a single brutal dictatorship in Africa. The West does this all the time,

By Stephen Chan

China could do more in Darfur. This is true, although it is also true of most governments. The Chinese protest their innocence too much, just as Hollywood activists protest too much the guilt of one party in a complex and hideous conflict.

In a curious way, the recent Stephen Spielberg action, although rightly motivated, has lent a 1930s movie air to proceedings: the righteous, handsome and beautiful white directors, actors and actresses defending the helpless black natives from the perfidious yellow peril.

And the rhetoric is pure one-liner Hollywood. In truth, Spielberg would not have become Leni Riefenstal, had he continued working with the Chinese on their Olympic ceremonies. The Chinese are supporting a single brutal dictatorship in Africa. The West does this all the time.

Sudan is not, like Nazi Germany, about to conquer all of continental Europe and exterminate 6 million Jews. But through his withdrawal, Spielberg has removed himself from the firing line of a dozen protest groups, from Tibet to Burma, who are using the Beijing Olympics as an instrument of protest.

Curiously, many civic activists in China itself are anxious that the games go ahead. They have been working towards the moment when they can attract the attention of the world concentrated in their capital city.

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What have the Chinese done on Darfur so far? They have dropped their objection to the hybrid African Union/UN peacekeeping force and are sending their own troops to join it. This has made big news in China, with photographs in all media of the oddly square-jawed soldiers preparing to enter the maws of hell.

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The Chinese now admit that Darfur is a dangerous place. They probably have more aid teams on the ground in small-scale community locations than any Western government – running medical clinics, schools, and agricultural projects. President Hu Jintao has personally travelled to Sudan to remonstrate, albeit politely, with the Sudanese leadership. Now, they are sending soldiers.

What have they not done? Primarily, they have not allowed international sanctions to be imposed upon Sudan, by threatening use of their Security Council veto. This is their main crime.

It is argued that they have taken this stand because they buy two thirds of Sudan’s oil. This is true, but China depends for its oil imports on much bigger suppliers than Sudan – although almost all its key suppliers are in Africa.

Those countries that buy the remaining third of Sudan’s oil are quietly glad that no sanctions have been imposed. More tellingly, the former rebel group that now governs the torturously-agreed autonomous region of southern Sudan do not want sanctions, as they struggle to get their administration up and running from Juba. And, finally, civic activists in northern Sudan do not want sanctions. Under the comprehensive peace agreement signed with the south, all citizens were for the first time accorded certain rights. They want to build on those and dread an isolated government that wreaks its vengeance upon its own liberals.

And there are yet further considerations. Firstly, the ‘African’ rebel groups in Darfur are currently as guilty of obstructing the peace as the ‘Arab’ Janjaweed militias. They are disunited, quarrelling and attacking the peacekeepers – usually quite successfully. Meanwhile, there are no reports of large scale military actions by the Jajaweed against the peacekeepers.

Secondly, the recent French involvement in military action to protect the government of neighbouring Chad did little to help the situation. It was French action on behalf of yet another Chadian regime, 25 years ago, that forced the forerunners of much of today’s Janjaweed out of Chad and into Darfur, already armed. There are many commonalities between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ groupings on both sides of this border, and what happens in Chad affects Darfur.

What more could China do? The Hollywood activists are right – China could significantly increase the pressure on Khartoum and still not jeopardise its oil rights. Sudan has no other customers to whom it wishes to sell – not with the only other viable big customer, the US, now perceived as host to the Hollywood protests.

Whether Sudan would bow to the pressure is quite another question. And the Chinese will point out that the US has not stopped buying oil from Iraq, despite possibly doing far more harm than good in that country. The Chinese argue they are doing more good than harm. But they can do more good and less harm in a very simple fashion.

Darfur is a huge area, and the few thousand peacekeepers on the ground can do little. They need helicopters – independent military analysts estimate that at least 100 are needed. If in place, neither the rebel groups, Janjaweed, or the military forces of Khartoum could move without being spotted, tracked and recorded. This would make war impossible and lay the preconditions for peace.

The Chinese could, by themselves, supply 100 helicopters. But then, why just the Chinese? Why hasn’t the vocal west supplied any helicopters ? And why have the very rich doyens of Hollywood not offered funds to help the peacekeeping operations? If the west made 50 helicopters available for Darfur, the Chinese – who understand shame but do not react well to pressure – would supply the other 50. The tragedy oft Darfur is not about athletes and the Olympics. The tragedy about Darfur is that, whether in English with a Hollywood accent or in Chinese, talk is cheap.

Stephen Chan was in Beijing in 2007 and, on the eve of the Chinese announcement that it would drop its objections to an enlarged peacekeeping force in Sudan, pleaded with the Chinese to supply 100 helicopters to peacekeeping in Darfur.