Steven Spielberg has quit his role as consultant to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Beyond giving China some bad PR, his decision will not substantially alter the country's policies towards Darfur. Still, the transnational coalition of music and film celebrities and professional NGO activists continue to press Beijing. Lost in the hubbub is the radical nature of this campaign--the first to try to pressure an authoritarian government to change its policies. Yes, Hollywood has protested over China's occupation of Tibet, but the campaign was directed primarily at Western audiences and aimed to convince decisionmakers to pressure China. This time, Spielberg, Mia Farrow, and their fellow activists are trying to convince the Chinese government itself to shift its foreign policy.
However, there seems to be little hope of that. China's support of the Sudanese springs from concrete strategic realities--it must find some means of meeting its ballooning energy demands. Given China's lack of comparable assets, it will hold onto Sudan as long as Khartoum doesn't compromise China's larger strategic objectives. There is little chance, say, of China deriving a major economic loss from its unpopular client state.
But Darfur worsens China's reputation abroad and could possibly tip the balance in an Africa that is growing steadily more wary of Beijing's reach. Protests against China's labor exploitation and interference in local affairs have been going on all over Africa. Chinese workers have also been attacked by rebel groups angry over Chinese backing for local despots. On some level this is amusing--the Chinese are finally learning what it feels like to be the target of the very same Third World yahoos with AK-47s and "technicals" that they backed during the Cold War. Yet it must also be worrying for a state so focused on meeting its energy needs.
Darfur does offer the Chinese an opportunity to demonstrate great power leadership, especially considering Khartoum's control of operations on the ground is growing more and more tenuous. The janjaweed are now slaughtering each other in a ravenous frenzy of competition over the spoils of conquest. This devolution of the conflict allows China to make a credible claim that the conflict does require some kind of credible arbitration force. That, and Beijing might also conceive that being the hero of the hour (provided that no punitive steps are taken against Khartoum and the oil continues to flow) might have substantial "soft power" benefits.