By Rachel Tiplady As the sun set over Paris two weeks ago, Simone Fontana and his friends settled down at the Cin? en Plein Air outdoor film festival to watch the premovie ads. At first, a shot of an athlete limbering for a race put him in mind of this month's Olympic Games, opening on Aug. 13 in Athens. But as the projector continued to roll, the 28-year-old Italian PhD student, along with 15,000 fellow spectators, was stunned into silence by the clip that followed: a beautifully-shot yet graphic 45-second protest film against the death penalty in China, host of the 2008 Olympics.
The clip marks the start of what promises to be a hard-fought, four-year global campaign to pressure China into improving its human-rights record. For businesses that sponsor Olympic teams or advertise during broadcasts of the Games, it's also a wake-up call. The Beijing Olympics are likely to be among the most politically charged ever, and the controversy is underway even as the 2004 Athens Olympics are just beginning.
The short film that Fontana saw demonstrates just how gritty the campaign is likely to be. Prepared by the French human-rights organization Together Against the Death Penalty (TADP), directed by Vincent Perez, and produced by the well-known French film personality Luc Besson (most famous for directing the cult film The Fifth Element), it opens with a Chinese athlete crouching at the starting line. A poker-faced Chinese official walks slowly toward him, raises the starting pistol as if to begin the race -- then aims at the athlete's neck and pulls the trigger. Fade to black, and then this message: "In 2008, Beijing will host the Olympic Games. Did you know, in China thousands of prisoners condemned to death are killed in the stadiums? And you, will you applaud the massacre?"
SIGNED, NOT RATIFIED. If Fontana's reaction is any indication, this campaign could have an impact. Fontana says he was "impressed and surprised by the film. Although I knew executions took place over the world, I didn't realize that many happened in China." As many as 27 people every day are put to death in the People's Republic without fair trial, according to human-rights group Amnesty International, for things like drug dealing and the "crime" of political dissidence. That's a greater tally than all the other countries that administer capital punishment combined. In the U.S., 65 people were executed in 2003.
Hosting the world's biggest sporting event will be a huge boon to the Chinese government, argues TADP President and founder Michel Taube, but it will also force Chinese leaders to respond to international criticism. "It's easy to underestimate the importance of the Olympics for the Chinese authorities," he says. "They will be depending on the Games' political and economic impact.... Global public pressure raised by protest films like ours will encourage China to act."
Beijing has already taken some small steps forward, explains Christien Van den Anker, lecturer in global ethics at Britain's Birmingham University. The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998, which prohibits torture and provides for freedom of religion and expression. However, China still hasn't ratified the treaty. "The Games will open a means for dialogue, and for their authorities to be more transparent about their practices," says Van den Anker. "The government will inevitably face questions about not only the death penalty," she says, "but other human rights issues, such as female infanticide and freedom of religion."
BEIJING BOYCOTT? In addition to screenings at the Cin?a en Plein Air festival, which runs until Aug. 29., TADP has signed up three movie theatres in Montreal and a dozen in Paris to show the clip. The four-year-old group is also in discussions with cinemas in the U.S. and Britain to expand distribution in the run-up to the second World Congress Against the Death Penalty, set to take place in Montreal October 6-9.
Although Taube is not calling for a Games boycott, he believes that if no progress is made by 2008, some nations may simply refuse to send athletes. In 1980, 60 countries including the U.S., West Germany, and Japan boycotted the Olympics in Moscow to protest Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. "It could happen again," says Taube. "The stakes in this particular game are very high." Businesses traditionally associated with the Games are duly forewarned. Tiplady is a reporter at BusinessWeek's Paris bureau