July 26, 2007 -- Steven Spielberg, under pressure from Darfur activists, may quit his post as artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, unless China takes a harder line against Sudan, a representative of the film director told ABC News.
China, Sudan's largest oil customer and perennial defender, has come under renewed scrutiny in the lead up to the Olympics, as the country juggles its need for cheap energy with its desire to host a trouble-free games.
As celebrities-cum-activists increasingly link the ongoing genocide with China's patronage, some — most notably and vocally, the actress Mia Farrow — have accused Spielberg of complicity, by not using his prominence and position to pressure the Chinese government to change course.
"Is Mr. Spielberg, who in 1994 founded the Shoah Foundation to record the testimony of survivors of the holocaust, aware that China is bankrolling Darfur's genocide?" Farrow and her son Ronan wrote in a March Wall Street Journal editorial.
In that same piece, "The Genocide Olympics," Farrow compared Spielberg to the Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl whose film "Olympia" was a paean to the 1936 Berlin Games.
"Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games," Farrow wrote.
Days after Farrow's editorial, Spielberg wrote an open letter to Hu Jintao, president of China. "I am writing this letter to you, not as one of the overseas artistic advisors to the Olympic Ceremonies, but as a private citizen who has made a personal commitment to do all I can to oppose genocide. … Accordingly, I add my voice to those who ask that China change its policy toward Sudan and pressure the Sudanese government to accept the entrance of United Nations peacekeepers to protect the victims of genocide in Darfur," Spielberg wrote.
Excluding that letter, Spielberg and his representatives have, until now, been tight-lipped on what additional action the director might take.
"Steven will make a determination in the next few weeks regarding his work with the Chinese. Our main interest is ending the genocide. No one is clear on the best way to do this," Spielberg's spokesman Andy Spahn told ABCNEWS.com.
Spahn said "all options were on the table," including quitting, but much would depend on an anticipated statement on Sudan by the Chinese government expected in the coming days.
"We expect to hear something from the Chinese government sometime soon, very soon. We're pretty far down the road in discussions and then we'll decide if the path is productive or not and then consider other options," Spahn said.
"Steven is one [of] many advisers to the Beijing Games and he is trying to use the games to engage the Chinese on this issue. … We are in the midst of that right now. We're engaged in a little bit of a back-and-forth private dialogue," Spahn said.
Spahn said Spielberg has contributed $1 million to aid groups working in Darfur. He is helping to plan the games' opening ceremonies and is not being paid.
Farrow is in France filming a movie and was unavailable for comment.
Recently, however, she told National Public Radio: "From looking so intensely at this it was apparent that there was one thing that China holds more dear than its unfettered access to Sudanese oil and that is its successful staging on the 2008 Olympic Games."
"My intention was never to hurt Steven Spielberg," Farrow told NPR, about her comparing the director of "Schindler's List" with Nazi filmmaker Riefenstahl. "My intention was to move things. Something had to move. He couldn't do that without knowing."
Experts agree that China has put incredible stock in the success of the Olympics and wants nothing to tarnish the games' success.
"It is something of a coming-out party for China as a world power," Nayan Chanda, director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, told ABCNEWS.com.
"The Olympics is very important to China. They are spending $30 [billion] to $40 billion on the games. It is a major event, necessary for China to claim its role as a world power. Economic reform has been going on since 1985, but the country has been stained by the Tiananmen massacre since '89," Chanda said. "Since then it was banned from certain contact and activities and it hasn't recovered fully its position in the world. China wants to finally put Tiananmen behind it."
Any Chinese policy, Chanda said, will be dictated by three factors: dependence on cheap energy, desire for a trouble-free games and the need to maintain face in the developing world without looking like it is bowing to Western pressure.
"It is a tough choice for the Chinese. On one hand they want it [the Olympics] to be trouble free and they see trouble on the horizon. On the other hand they see the importance of energy security. Thirdly, they're worried about the impact of abandoning Sudan, affecting China's position in developing world."
Several celebrities-turned-activists have pointed their fingers directly at China. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Jerry Weintraub are in the process of creating the foundation Not on Our Watch and have donated $5.5 million raised at premieres of their film "Ocean's 13" to several development agencies working in Darfur.
Though little came from the meeting, Clooney, Cheadle and two U.S. Olympians met with Chinese authorities in December to discuss a shift in Chinese policy on Darfur.
Experts say the actions of individual activists, regardless of their celebrity power, will do little to sway the Chinese.
"Celebrities get attention and those who get attention will be listened to, but individual celebrities can do very little," said William Kirby, a China expert and professor of history at Harvard University.
Pointing to the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Kirby said the Olympics often become a flash point for controversy, but host nations rarely change their foreign policies as a result.
Even if China releases a statement as Spielberg predicts, and even if it does not announce a significant shift in policy, Kirby remains optimistic that the country's policy toward Sudan could change.
"Often the Chinese say one thing and do another. They are more likely to be judgeable by their acts rather than their pronouncements. If you look at their handling of North Korea, despite the rhetoric, their actions spoke louder than their words."