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Tibet: Get Out Your Candles

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It's been a while since I've wanted to go out and march in a protest. I outgrew them after college, when I got a job and got real. But today, a few decades later, I marked April 7 in my calendar. That's the day the Olympic torch moves through San Francisco. I think I'll go hold a candle for Tibet in our UN Plaza.

We don't even know the route the torch will take. I'm sure they'll do everything possible to avoid demonstrations. But at least we'll be part of the story in the news. I'm hoping that the Dalai Lama sees the news photos and knows we're not giving up on China this time. I'm hoping that maybe just one photo from the events around the city makes its way onto a few computers in mainland China. And that people there can talk quietly to their friends about it.

I know that talking about bringing about change in China sounds like something you have to be seventeen years old to believe. Personally I gave up on China after Tiananmen Square. I gave up on them again after they failed time and again to lift a finger on the killing in Sudan. I gave up when they sat back and let Burmese troops fire on Buddhist monks.

But they've finally shaken me out of my coma. In part this is because it's Tibet. I've been to the Dalai Lama's home to tape an interview. Most recently, last December, I had three days with him and other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates at a Summit meeting in Rome. If you've ever sat in a room and listened to him speak, you can't really turn away from this one.

There are other reasons for not giving up on China. In doing a quick browse of the "China" entry on Wikipedia, I was reminded today that when you are talking about China, you are talking about the people who founded whole dynasties based on Buddhism. The people who gave us The Art of War, who gave us Tang Dynasty horses and Qin Dynasty soldiers. The people who were writing about politics, economics and astronomy 500 years before Ancient Greece had its first alphabet. The Chinese culture has survived the British, the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and more. It has been reborn repeatedly over three millennia.

There is a reason why the hardliners today are so afraid of a monk that they have to make up scary names for him and accuse him of things the rest of the world considers ludicrous. They're not just afraid of the Dalai Lama. They're afraid of Chinese history and tradition rearing their heads, of the Chinese remembering who they are.

We can help that process along. We can demand that their government officials answer on Tibet, and continue to demand that they answer, right up through August. We have to be the ones to do it -- no one inside Tibet can do it now.

It's not going to bring about any overnight changes. But it might do something. As long as we keep the question alive, as long as it is a piece of the story on the Olympics, they're not going to be able to move that spotlight off them. They are going to have to keep talking about it among themselves.

And perhaps most importantly, it will let the reformers inside China know, however they find out, that we haven't given up on them. The people who want democracy in China are still there. The ex-government officials who pushed for reform, democratization, and dialogue may be out of office, but they are still alive. Many of their less vocal supporters still hold government positions. The kids who watched their fellow students being mowed down by tanks in Tiananmen Square are a bit older now, and much quieter, but still there.

They may have been 99% silenced. But in 2001, I had a section on TheCommunity.com where the Nobel Laureates contributed post-9/11 statements. You could email the Laureates from the site. We had a statement from the Dalai Lama in that section. At a time when the world thought the Chinese government had the Internet locked down, I was getting mail for him from mainland China.

They are there. And they should know that we are here -- trying to speak for them.

There's one other reason why I can't give up on China. Last fall, I had an incredible opportunity to sit and interview Desmond Tutu in a quiet moment, when he was on a private retreat with his wife in Kalamazoo. Pretty much everything he said has come back to me in the months since.

At the time we talked about Burma. But what he said is every bit as applicable today to China. I asked him what you do when it seems you are up against an intractable force, when you feel like you've exhausted all possibilities and nothing has budged, that the people you are up against could just care less about human rights.

"They do, actually," he said. "Ultimately you discover that they do care. Don't let them kid you into saying that your pressures don't make a difference. They do."

"At the lowest," he said, "you could say that it gives encouragement to the victims. And that's a very important thing."

So go to SaveTibet.org or Students or a Free Tibet and spend 45 seconds sending an email to your Congressman or the Chairman of the Olympic Committee. Celebrities, tape and post your messages online. Talk to the media. Go light a candle or join a march. We're not done yet.