Efforts stall on shaming China


NEW YORK (JTA) – Sudan’s president may soon be the target of an arrest warrant for the killings in Darfur, and Iran was blasted by the United States and Europe for testing the missiles it threatens to fire at Israel.

But the international player accused of complicity in both developments appears to be getting a pass.

China has used its veto powers in the U.N. Security Council to block strong international action against the regimes in Tehran and Khartoum, and has thrown them lifelines by continuing oil and arms trade despite Western attempts at isolation.

Jewish groups have taken lead roles in drawing attention to China’s policies, and specifically sought to spotlight the country’s record in advance of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet it appears as if China will suffer no significant international sanction when the Games open Aug. 8.

President Bush will be on hand for the opening ceremony in Beijing, despite calls from the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs that he stay home. Joining him will be Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has said that a nuclear Iran would be “a nightmare” and that international unity, which China has played a key role in blocking, could make military action unnecessary.

Calls for boycotts of the Olympics, some with comparisons to Nazi Germany’s hosting of the 1936 Berlin Games, also have been rejected by mainstream Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee both warned that challenging Beijing during the Olympics would not produce the anticipated results.

“The only thing that can affect China is the big Western powers in unison, but they will never do that.,” Raphael Israeli, a professor of Islamic and Chinese history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told JTA. “Only then would the Chinese do something as a gesture. But as long as there are only declarations and protests, they have a very thick skin. They can absorb a lot if they don’t have to do anything practical.”

Just a few months ago, the value of the Olympics as a showcase for China’s exploding economic power seemed in serious danger of running aground.

In addition to reports questioning the quality of Beijing’s air for elite athletes, some tried to brand the Games the “Genocide Olympics” because of Chinese ties with Sudan. Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the Games, saying “conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual.” Riots in Chinese-occupied Tibet led Elie Wiesel to organize fellow Nobel laureates to protest China’s brutal crackdown. And a group of 185 Jewish leaders, mostly rabbis, called on Jewish tourists to stay away from Beijing.

As the Olympics draw closer, however, even activists are quietly admitting they are likely to go off without much of a hitch.

“It’s been frustrating,” said the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Rabbi Steve Gutow, “because it doesn’t appear we’re being listened to.”

With barely two weeks to go, Tibet and Darfur have largely fallen from the headlines, replaced with profiles of athletes and articles about the iconic architecture China has built to showcase its capital city. Few world leaders are skipping the opening ceremonies, and those attending want their visits to be free of politics.

“We believe that sports and politics should not be mixed, especially at the Olympic Games,” said David Saranga, Israel’s consul for public affairs in New York. “While the situation regarding Iran’s nuclear program is a cause for grave concern throughout the international community, the State of Israel firmly believes that dialogue and diplomacy are the ideal methods for resolving this issue.”

Jodi Jacobson, the director of advocacy at the American Jewish World Service, rejected the notion that sports and politics could be so neatly separated.

“I think this president particularly has not shown a willingness to stand up when it comes to human rights issues,” Jacobson said, referring to Bush. “And it’s problematic because we should not be attending ceremonies like this on the notion that they are politics free because they’re not.”

Having dropped its effort to get Bush to stay home Aug. 8, the American Jewish World Service has turned instead to NBC, the exclusive broadcaster of the Olympics in the United States. The group has asked the network to commit 100 minutes of prime-time coverage to Darfur during the Games, a number dwarfed by the 1,000-plus hours NBC plans to devote to the Olympics.

AJWS is planning a protest Wednesday with other Darfur groups at NBC’s Manhattan headquarters.

“The window before the Olympics was the best time to pressure,” Jacobson said. “Once they start it’s like batting away flies.”

Thomas Neumann, the executive director of the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which has taken a hard line on Iran, said Bush has a broader set of interests with respect to China.

Using the Olympics as a wedge, Neumann said, “wouldn’t be the wisest posture.”

On Peres’ attendance, however, he was less circumspect.

“Shimon Peres has always taken a softer line than we have,” Neumann said. “We would like to see him stay home.”

The notion of broader interests is particularly true for Israel, which has enjoyed a blossoming trade relationship with China, reaching $5 billion this year.

It is precisely China’s willingness to put trade above principle, as evidenced in its reluctance to scale back ties with Sudan and Iran, that has opened the door to close relations with Israel, according to William Brown, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who also has been involved in China issues.

Israel’s relative small size also ensures that any punitive action will damage the Jewish state far more than China, the world’s most populous nation, Brown and Israeli observers said.

“I don’t want to stretch it as far as what the Chinese reaction could be, but if they got their back up it could be quite deleterious,” Brown said. “There were frenzied moments in Chinese history in our lifetime. When they’re angry, they have the capacity – there’s a very strong sense of nationalism in China.”

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