China Steps Up Its Argument Over Darfur
World Leaders' Plans to Attend Olympics Used to Push View of Games as Apolitical

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008

BEIJING, March 7 -- Liu Guijin, China's special envoy for Sudan, was fielding yet another question Friday on Darfur and the Olympics. Politics have no place in the Olympics, he told reporters, and it violates the Olympic spirit to claim that China has a duty to do more in the embattled western Sudanese region because Beijing is hosting the 2008 Games.

But this time, Liu had a new argument in his briefcase: President Bush agrees with China on this point. So does British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he said, not to mention French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Those world leaders have announced their willingness to attend a gala opening ceremony Aug. 8, he noted. If people of that caliber think Darfur is no reason to take the joy out of the Beijing Olympics, he suggested, then the human rights activists and Darfur campaigners must be out of line.

"More and more spokesmen and public figures have decided that politicization of the Olympic Games is not compatible with the Olympic spirit and that the Darfur question has no connection to the Olympic Games," he said.

Liu's comments, at a Foreign Ministry briefing, marked the latest salvo in a belated but increasingly active public diplomacy campaign by the Chinese government. In news conferences, statements and widely publicized actions, it has begun to duel openly with U.S. and European activists who assert that hosting the Games bestows on China a responsibility to improve its human rights record and work more forcefully to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

"Their attitude will go nowhere," Liu said.

Citing the decisions by Bush and other Western leaders also demonstrated how much comfort the Communist Party has taken in their willingness to overlook China's problems and join in a celebration that will focus on the remarkable progress here over the past three decades.

For the party, such international recognition that China is doing well under its stewardship is the main benefit of hosting the Olympics, according to Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist and researcher at Tsinghua University. In that sense, the party itself has found political meaning in the Games. But it has moved to rebut those who seek to inject other political agendas less to its liking, including human rights and Darfur.

Liu, who was China's ambassador to South Africa before being appointed a special envoy last May, has played a key role in the campaign, tirelessly summoning reporters in Sudan, Europe and the United States to listen to China's side of the story. He returned Thursday night from a trip to Britain, France and Sudan that was punctuated at most stops by news conferences and speeches.

The recurring theme of his appearances is that China has been unfairly targeted on the issue of Darfur. "China has been using its influence to the largest extent possible to persuade the relevant parties to resolve the situation," Liu declared Friday.

Concern has risen in recent weeks as violence appears to have resumed in the region. As many as 450,000 people have died in fighting and from disease and 2.5 million have been displaced since 2003, when Darfur's black African residents rebelled against Sudan's Arab-led central government over land seizures and other abuses.

China was identified early on as an important player in the conflict. With a booming economy and soaring energy needs, it has been a major buyer of Sudanese oil. Seeking to lock in the oil supplies, it has also invested heavily in local infrastructure projects and is among the countries that sell weapons to the Sudanese military.

The Bush administration has repeatedly called on Beijing to use its influence to pressure the government to be more flexible in its efforts to end the conflict. U.S. entertainment figures and other activists have taken the call another step, saying that as host of the Olympics, China has a humanitarian obligation to take more effective action.

Specifically, they have called on China to make sure the Sudanese government allows full deployment of a 26,000-member U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force. The Security Council decided in July to dispatch the force, but so far only about 9,000 soldiers have arrived.

In response, Liu said that China also wants the force to deploy in full but that the situation on the ground is much more complicated than the activists seem to understand.

Doing its part, meanwhile, China last May dispatched 275 military engineers to prepare the way. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that China also plans to send combat troops to bolster the full U.N.-African Union force. But Liu said the Beijing government has not yet decided on that point. In any case, he explained, much remains to be done, including assembling a helicopter fleet, before the entire force can reach Darfur.

"The deployment of these troops depends on cooperation from a lot of countries, not just Sudan," he said.

Liu said he had explained these complications in a meeting in September with movie director Steven Spielberg, who has voiced concern over the humanitarian situation in Darfur. To dramatize his concerns, Spielberg announced last month that he was resigning as a consultant for the Beijing Olympics opening extravaganza. In fact, Liu said, he had already told Spielberg in September that he was no longer able to act as a consultant because he had failed to sign a contract on time with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

As a result, Liu said, Spielberg's announcement five months later "was quite a surprise to me."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company