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Activists Encouraged as China Acts To Ease Darfur Crisis

Human rights activists say China is slowly but surely acceding to pressure being brought to bear upon it to assume a leading role in easing the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Advocacy groups say hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced to refugee camps, since 2003. They blame the government of Sudan for the tragedy. The activists also accuse Beijing of fomenting the violence, by supporting Khartoum with weapons and money. They say they’ll join calls for an international boycott of next year’s Olympics in Beijing, unless China is seen to be playing a positive role in securing a lasting peace in Darfur. In the third report in a series on pressure on China with regard to the dilemma, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on Beijing’s gradual entrance into efforts to stop the killings in Darfur.

In their public statements, senior Chinese officials remain belligerent in the face of criticism of their support for the Sudanese administration, which international human rights organizations say has, by means of various proxies, instigated a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, recently said calls for a boycott of his country’s Olympic Games were doomed to failure, because it was only a “handful of people” that were trying to “politicize the Olympics.”

“Their objectives.... will never be attained,” Yang stated. A boycott, he said, is “against the spirit of the games. It also runs against the aspirations of all the people of the world, thus their aims will never be achieved.”

But, behind the scenes, the Chinese appear to be making notable efforts to ease what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Survivors of the violence in Darfur have testified to the black people of the region being targeted for “extermination” by a militia known as the janjaweed, backed by government troops.

As the crisis has continued, activists have swiveled their sights upon China, Khartoum’s most important foreign ally. China has invested heavily in Sudan’s fuel industry, and buys about two-thirds of all the oil produced in Sudan – about 400,000 barrels a day. It has built key infrastructure in Sudan, and has also promised to construct a new presidential palace in Khartoum, at a cost of millions of dollars.

The activists want Beijing to suspend weapons sales to Sudan, and to lead international efforts at bringing the rebels and Khartoum to the table for peace talks.

The major activist groups that have rallied around the Darfur issue, such as the Save Darfur Coalition and the Enough Campaign, say they’ll support calls for a boycott – by the public, athletes and sponsors - of the Olympics, which are scheduled to begin in Beijing in August next year - unless the Chinese do their best to avoid further suffering in Darfur.

China is clearly irritated by the growing pressure being brought to bear upon it because of the actions of one its chief partners in its efforts to strengthen its presence on the African continent.

But calls for an Olympics boycott are becoming more vociferous. Already, thousands of people from all over the globe have signed petitions in favor of such a move. More than 100 US lawmakers have sent a letter to President Hu Jintao, warning him of a public relations “disaster” next year should China fail to use its influence over Khartoum to stop the violence in Darfur. New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, who intends standing as a candidate in next year’s presidential election in the US, says he’ll support the boycott if China doesn’t act. US celebrities and Olympic athletes, such as Kenya’s Tegla Lourope, are also mobilizing opinion in an effort to pressure Beijing.

Yang has stressed that China is playing a positive role in trying to secure peace in Darfur, which he maintains, will be achieved only through “dialogue and negotiation.”

And it appears as if China is increasingly entering that sphere of “dialogue and negotiation,” with Beijing’s pledges that it’ll cooperate with the US and France – which also has significant interests in Sudan’s oil sector - to discuss the best way forward in Darfur.

Activists are encouraged by China’s increased involvement in peace efforts. Previously, China had insisted that Sudan was a sovereign state and, as such, should be left to solve its own “internal” problems without international “interference.” But it also took an active stance in protecting Khartoum from international pressure. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China weakened a resolution that authorized a UN peacekeeping force to protect civilians, by insisting that it be employed only “with the consent” of Sudan. This led to months of stalling by Khartoum, and more death in Darfur. Beijing has also condemned US financial sanctions on Sudanese companies.

But Stephen Morrison, a senior Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., says there are “good indications” that China is taking steps to avoid a boycott of the Olympics because of its support for Khartoum.

“President Hu Jintao has recently made some pointed public statements (about Darfur), quite out of the norm from the usual form of (quiet) Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese have appointed a special envoy (Liu Giujin), dedicated to Darfur. They’ve downgraded the status of Sudan as a favored, preferential site for Chinese investments and trade. All of those measures did not go unnoticed in Khartoum.”

According to Morrison, the transition from Chinese inaction with regard to Darfur to one of relative engagement began before the outcry to boycott the Olympics.

“The first big shift was the Chinese intervention in November 2006, when their ambassador to the UN was pivotal to getting (Sudan) President (Omar) al-Bashir to sign the peace plan…. And I think that’ll go down as a marker to the change in the Chinese approach to foreign relations. Then you had President Hu visiting Khartoum in early February (2007) and sending very mixed messages – offering new forms of assistance to Sudan, and celebrating the two countries’ economic relationship – but also in his closing remarks making a very pointed statement that Khartoum had to get serious about the grievous situation in Darfur.”

However, says Morrison, Chinese action has accelerated since the possibility of a boycott of the Beijing Games has been raised.

“The Chinese do not want a disruption to their games – no matter how small that disruption is. They don’t want protests; they don’t want a scene at the games. They want to use the Olympics to project a good image to the world, far away from the usual focus on China being a noted human rights abuser,” he explains.

But Morrison emphasizes that China should be given credit, where credit is due.

“I think we would not be where we are today, in terms of a strong consensus internationally around the need to move ahead with regard to the (former UN secretary general) Kofi Annan peace plan, were it not for the Chinese joining that. We’ve had an affirmation of commitment from Khartoum and it remains to be seen whether they live up to this.”

Anita Sharma, of the Enough Campaign, is hopeful that a change in the way that the Chinese approach foreign policy, to one of more active engagement with the affairs of their foreign partners, will herald an improvement in the situation in Darfur.

“In China, because they’re opening themselves up economically and socially in the run-up to the Olympics, for the first time in recent memory China’s policies are becoming more vulnerable to public opinion. And so I think there’s a growing acceptance within the Chinese government, that they understand that they have more of a responsibility in terms of economics and political viability in Africa,” Sharma says.

She sees China becoming more receptive towards embracing human rights because it wants to “play on the global stage, not just in Africa.”

Sharma is also of the opinion that there’s “direct evidence” that China is “nervous” about the international action that is being mounted against it because of the perception that it is fomenting the Darfur crisis.

“China may say publicly that this activism effort is having no (effect) on them, but at the same time there are indications that they’re taking this seriously. Nobody in China wants to have a potential boycott on their hands.”

Former US ambassador, Larry Rossin – senior international coordinator of the Save Darfur Coalition - agrees, but he still has reservations about China’s commitment to gaining peace in the region.

“We’ve seen some small indications that China is in fact concerned about Darfur. When President Hu Jintao visited Khartoum in February, he apparently raised Darfur – not to the degree that we would have hoped for – but he did raise Darfur with President al-Bashir…. But then he did it within the context of, amongst other things, building a new presidential palace (for al-Bashir), which clearly is, at best, ambiguous.”

Rossin says the potential for an Olympics boycott is looming large over the Chinese authorities, and “giving them lots to think about.”

“They’ve reacted quite strongly to the linkage of the Olympics and Darfur; they’ve talked increasingly about the fact that they’re playing an important, positive role in trying to end the conflict in Darfur. But we’re not persuaded, because you see this ambiguity in their approach,” says Rossin.

Part of the reason why some activists continue to be skeptical with regard to China’s role in the crisis, is Beijing’s apparent agreement with the Sudanese authorities that the tragedy in Darfur is being exaggerated.

“The new Chinese special envoy visited Darfur and his public statements were: ‘Well, things are actually pretty good out here.’ Well, we know that they’re not. The UN is telling us all the time that in fact it’s a bad situation out there,” Rossin says.

Nevertheless, he agrees that China is becoming “more open” to calls that it should convince Khartoum to protect the people of Darfur, especially in the light of threats to boycott the Olympics.

“My sense to you would be that I think the Chinese government is taking notice of this; it realizes that somehow it’s associated with a government that causes it an image problem at a time when image is extremely important, with the Olympics.”

Rossin says it’s up to China to play a “lead role” in stopping the killings in Darfur, and, in so doing, putting to rest cries for a global boycott of the 2008 Beijing Games.

“We believe that the Chinese government easily can take steps to solve that problem, but really it’s in the Chinese government’s hands. If the Chinese government does take those steps, it’ll make a big difference to the people of Darfur and also it (China) will be given due credit by those who are building up a campaign relating the Olympics to Darfur.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to repeated requests for interviews with officials with regard to its Darfur peace efforts.