As the largest group of Americans since the end of the Korean War reached Pyongyang, performing under Lorin Maazel’s baton, the idea of cultural engagement got a new meaning. That the New York Philharmonic’s tour happened within a week of Steven Spielberg’s decision to step aside as an artistic adviser to the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics makes the contrast all the more glaring.
When it comes to informal diplomacy, there is one rule for Pyongyang, another for Beijing. When it comes to actual diplomacy, another set of rules prevails. Almost nobody trades with North Korea; almost everybody trades with China. No country is about to open a commercial attache’s office in Pyongyang; despite Darfur and Tiananmen Square, no one has stopped doing business with China.
The case for the Philharmonic’s tour to the hermit kingdom is sound. This is about music. There are few works more uplifting than George Gershwin’s An American In Paris. It embodies the sunny-side-up optimism of the American abroad, exploring the world with innocent charm. The Bush administration likes this cultural diplomacy—by some reckoning, the tour is as important as the American table tennis players’ tour of Mao-era China.
But China today is different. And because the world cannot do without $10 T-shirts and $39 DVD players, the battle to reform China must be fought by other means. This means Spielberg, and if activists are lucky, some athletes who might boycott the Games, jettisoning their dreams, will make political points. But it is disingenuous to target the Games now: The time to do so was in July 2001, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted for Beijing. In 1993, even when Tiananmen Square was red with the blood of students killed by the Chinese military four years earlier, China came close to the prize: Sydney barely scraped through with a 45-43 win over Beijing. In 2001, there was hardly any debate.
True, when IOC voted for Beijing, the Darfur crisis was not as acute then, and we lived in the innocent, pre-9/11 world. But you didn’t need Darfur or Burma to punish China, for there is no shortage of abuses there: The way tens of thousands of prisoners are treated in China’s lao gai (labour camp) is far worse than the treatment meted out to inmates at Guantanamo Bay. And yet, while the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was sufficient for many Western countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (resulting in the tit-for-tat Soviet bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984), all concerns were set aside while voting for Beijing.
Curiously, that may not be a bad thing. This is not out of any naive, sentimental feeling that sports builds bridges, but because it exposes the hypocrisy of international politics—of empty gestures. Sometimes sports builds bridges, sometimes it destroys them, bringing out the worst of jingoism. Think of India-Pakistan matches which, as the American writer Mike Marqusee describes it, are war minus the shooting. Or, an actual war: in 1969, a football match between Honduras and El Salvador was the last straw that broke the barrier, plunging the two nations into a war, which the late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski immortalized in his book, The Soccer War.
There’s enough tension in sports; adding politics makes it worse. And seeking political change through sports (or culture) is guilt-free activism. It is peculiarly odd to think that by preventing Spielberg from going to Beijing, China’s—or Sudan’s—human rights situation will improve. Sports and arts boycotts are feel-good boycotts. They require no sacrifice on the part of politicians; the burden is for the performer or the athlete, and the fans.
The world has been through this before: India was among the first to impose economic sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa. And yet, on my first visit there when apartheid ruled nominally, in Durban’s Grey Street, I could find Lijjat papad, Stardust magazine, Vandevi hing and Dabur’s products. Oh yes, in 1974 India did forfeit its chance to win the Davis Cup, when the Amritraj brothers were prevented from playing South Africa in the finals.
To stop the massacre in Darfur, impose oil sanctions on Sudan and stop selling arms to Khartoum. But that’s more complicated. Taking on China is also hard. So Sudan and Burma have become the proxy to attack China, and Spielberg a weapon in that battle. That’s a recipe for drama, not change.
Real change is glacial: In 2004, the creators of South Park made a wildly funny film, Team America: World Police, where superheroes tool on Kim Jong-II (who has half of Hollywood singing for him). This week, Maazel played An American In Paris in Pyongyang. Strange though it may sound, it is progress.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org