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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Mission of Dissent in the Heart of Beijing

August 24, 2008

Caution, Resilience Aided Pro-Tibet Team
By Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post Foreign Service
The Washington Post
August 23, 2008; A01

BEIJING -- Sam Maron came to China posing as a tourist excited about
his first trip to the country. With his point-and-shoot camera and
monotone T-shirts, he blended into the crowds of other foreigners in
town for the Olympic Games.

Had Chinese authorities bothered to check his luggage and that of his
companions, they might have gotten a hint of what was to come: a
25-by-15-foot white nylon sheet, a handful of black Sharpie markers,
climbing ropes, harnesses and walkie-talkies.

Within days of the group's arrival, the items had been assembled.

Shortly before dawn on Aug. 15, Maron, two other Americans, a
Canadian woman and a British man were hanging off the side of a
billboard next to the new headquarters of China's state-run
television station, CCTV, and raising a banner that said "Free Tibet."

It was yet another victory for Students for a Free Tibet, an activist
organization based in New York that has pulled off eight protests
over two weeks in one of the most locked-down countries in the world,
a record far surpassing that of any other group.

Activists upset over China's hosting of the Games had hoped
demonstrators would descend on Beijing in droves this month. The
groups' causes included human rights, religious freedom,
environmentalism and media freedom, as well as Darfur and China's role there.

But with the Olympics ending on Sunday, few groups have demonstrated.
Many activists proved unable to evade Chinese security authorities
long enough to stage a successful protest; others, facing severe visa
restrictions, never even got into the country.

Athletes, meanwhile, appear largely to have adhered to an
International Olympic Committee rule forbidding political, religious
or racial protests at Olympic sites or venues, including the
athletes' village. Among the rare exceptions was a Polish
weightlifter, Szymon Kolecki, who shaved his head before winning a
silver medal on Sunday and indicated it was a gesture of solidarity
with Tibetan monks.

Protests by Students for a Free Tibet have been far more theatrical.
As of Friday, 55 volunteers from the group had been detained or
deported for their short-lived demonstrations in some of Beijing's
most iconic venues: Tiananmen Square, the National Stadium, the
Olympic Green. Six are still being held on a 10-day detention
sentence, and four were taken away by police Thursday, their
whereabouts unknown.

How the group, a grass-roots organization using only about 150
volunteers and a budget of $1 million in donations, managed to
outmaneuver the vast Chinese security apparatus is a study in
persistence, planning and passion. Their goal was to draw attention
to what they say is the oppression of a region that has been under
Beijing's control since 1950.

Authorities in Beijing maintain that Tibet is an inalienable part of
China and that foreigners do not understand the situation there.
Protesters, they say, are intent on simply embarrassing China.

Maron, 22, who graduated from the University of Vermont in May,
doesn't see it that way.

"I don't expect Tibet to be free once the Olympics end," he said,
"but we're trying to take the spotlight away from China's growth and
put it on the abuses of their occupation."

The Plan

The planning for the Beijing protests, funded mostly through small
individual donations of as little as $10, began in earnest earlier
this year as volunteers from around the world flooded Chinese visa
offices with their applications.

Those who were approved deployed to Beijing in teams of four or five,
with specific instructions. The teams were to operate independently
and with only minimal communication with the outside. Each knew its
own mission but was provided with little information about the other
teams. That way, if one was captured, it couldn't tip off authorities
to the broader plans.

Separately, a group of "citizen journalists" working for Students for
a Free Tibet was assigned to photograph, film and otherwise document
each protest and post footage on the Internet. A "witness" would
watch and serve as a spokesman to the media if the protesters were arrested.

While in China, these observers were not to interact with the
protesters. In many cases they would be told the time and location of
the demonstrations -- or "actions" -- minutes before they happened.
Only when speaking to reporters were they to identify themselves as
spokesmen for Students for a Free Tibet.

Maron said he was assigned to what became known as Group 6. Its
members had never met before a planning meeting in San Francisco this summer.

Besides Maron, the two other Americans were Bianca Bockman, 27, a
substitute teacher from Oakland, Calif., who is active in animal and
human rights campaigns, and Kelly Osborne, 39, a youth minister from
Oklahoma City.

They were joined by Canadian Nicole Rycroft, 41, formerly a
nationally ranked rower in Australia and head of an environmental
group, and Britain's Phil Kirk, 24, an experienced rock climber who
works in a sports equipment store.

Their motivations were as diverse as their backgrounds. Some had been
inspired by listening to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual
leader. Others had spent time in India or Nepal and heard stories of
Tibetan repression.

Rycroft said her goal was to tell the Chinese government: "It takes
more than just economic might to be a world leader. Justice has to be
part of that." Osborne said he hoped he could inspire ordinary
Chinese to get involved. "I believed that as human beings, the
Chinese people, if they knew what was really going on in Tibet, they
would be outraged by that as well," he said.

For months, Maron agonized over whether to volunteer. His parents
were worried he would get hurt. He was concerned he would never be
able to get a Chinese visa again.

"But the more I thought about it, this is something I felt I had to
do. I realized that I have the ability to go and to go speak out and
in a way that a lot of Tibetans are not able to," he said.

So on July 31, he boarded a plane to Beijing.

The Adjustment

Maron met his co-conspirators in a two-bedroom apartment hotel in the
central part of the city. None spoke Chinese, and only one had been
to Beijing before.

They spent the first few days checking out their assigned target -- a
tourist spot near the Great Wall -- but they found security there too
tight. They needed a new plan.

Armed with a Lonely Planet phrase book, they hit all the other major
sites in Beijing in search of a new location: the Forbidden City,
Tiananmen Square, the Sanlitun bar street. They were careful not to
blow their covers. They ate Chinese for every meal, went drinking,
played a few matches of Ping-Pong.

"We were tourists through and through. They would have gotten really
bored if they followed us," Bockman said.

In their spare time, the group's members worked on the banner in
their apartment, using pens to carefully write F-R-E-E T-I-B-E-T in
giant letters. They copied the four Chinese characters with an
equivalent meaning from a piece of paper they had brought from the
United States.

All the while, they carefully followed a set of rules: limit personal
e-mail; use pay phones to check in with family and friends; in phone
conversations, use vague phrases such as "Hi, I'm fine" and "We're
having a great time."

When they talked about the protest in their hotel room, they turned
on the shower or the TV to try to drown out any listening devices
that might have been planted. All notes were ripped into tiny shreds,
separated into piles so they could not be reassembled easily, and
disposed of in multiple trash cans on the street.

One day they were riding in a taxi along Beijing's Third Ring Road
when Bockman spotted the gleaming new CCTV building, an imposing
structure of twisted steel, and suggested it might make a good target.

Security around the building was light. While the tower was under
construction and probably dangerous to climb, a row of billboards
nearby with steel frame grids seemed sturdy.

Most of the signs had corporate ads, but one of them said simply
"Beijing 2008" and featured the Olympic rings.


The 'Poignant' Point

At 5:45 a.m. a few days later, team members were climbing the billboard.

Rycroft and Kirk went first. Their job was to get the banner to the
top and unroll it.

The three Americans played a support role. They were the lookouts.

Within 10 minutes, Rycroft and Kirk had scaled the structure and
managed to unfurled the "Free Tibet" banner. They were taking some
Tibetan flags out of their backpacks when trouble arrived.

The Chinese security forces were fast. Maron was the first to spot
them and their clubs.

"It's hard not to be nervous and scared when you see 12 paramilitary
police in full camouflage sprinting towards you across the parking
lot," he recalled.

Maron tried to talk to them, to explain that if they just left the
group alone everyone would come down safely. But three of the men
grabbed Bockman and pulled her down. The others quickly scrambled
down, and all five were put inside a white police van.

By early afternoon, the foreigners were on a plane home.

Back in central Beijing, the Chinese police were still looking for accomplices.

Kurt Langer, a 34-year-old who works in the music industry in New
York, was the "witness" assigned to the CCTV protest. He had arrived
separately, evaded capture and was still talking to reporters.

But the next day, he said, he noticed four plainclothes police
officers following him everywhere. Worried he might compromise the
rest of the operation, he headed to the airport.

Chinese security caught up with him there and took him to an
abandoned hotel. He said they then interrogated him for 10 hours --
alternately turning up the air conditioning until he was shivering,
then the heat until he was sweating. He said they turned up the
volume of the TV until his ears hurt and then turned off every light
until it was pitch black.

The experience "drove home the point of why we were there," Langer
said. "The fact that they couldn't even stand to tolerate a foreigner
speaking openly in the press makes it even more poignant the lack of
Tibetan voices."

In the end, police made Langer sign a 12-page confession in Chinese
that he couldn't read, but he said he didn't tell the police a thing.

It wasn't because Langer didn't want to cooperate. It was because, by
design, he simply didn't know.

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