On Friday the Beijing Olympics will begin, an event that Tibet activists -- and many others -- have simultaneously worked to prevent and leverage the greatest benefit out of for pretty much the entire 21st Century. As someone with deep ties to the Tibetan independence movement, I've worked along side many of the people who will be taking part in the global discussion of how China's ongoing military occupation of Tibet reflects on the 2008 Summer Games. Just two days before the Games begin, we've seen a convergence of events speak to the deeply political nature of the Beijing Games.
On Monday a few dozen Beijing homeowner's who had been evicted for pre-Olympics beautification with limited compensation protested the government's ill treatment of them. Today a group of Christian activists held a demonstration in Tiananmen Square to protest China's one child per family policy. Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek, along time activist against the genocide in Darfur, had his visa taken away a day before he had intended to head to Beijing. There may be no limit to the number of protests that take place, on a range of issues. These protests will continue to take place because this is precisely the time to bring attention to China's horrendous record on human rights and freedom.
The main event dominating news from Beijing today was a Free Tibet banner hang action outside of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. China's illegal military occupation of Tibet has long been the most persistent flash-point for the Beijing Olympics. The action undertaken by four members of Students for a Free Tibet serves as the frame through which these Olympics should be viewed. As the world's turns its eyes to China and the opening of the Games, Tibet activists are going to shine a spotlight on the worsening crisis in Tibet. From a brutal crackdown following a national uprising in Tibet in March and April, to China's use of Cultural Revolution-style "reeducation classes" in Tibet's monasteries, to the arbitrary detention and disappearance of Tibetans who publicly express their desire for freedom, there is great urgency for the world to focus on Tibet.
And thus at around 5:30am this morning Beijing time, two climbers ascended 120-foot high electrical poles and took action in solidarity with Tibet. One banner was written with large black letters "One World One Dream Free Tibet", and another banner with "Tibet will be free" in English and "Free Tibet" in Chinese. An hour after the climbers took to the poles and unfurled their banners, they peacefully descended and were taken into custody (there whereabouts and status are currently unknown, though Chinese state media reports the investigation into the protest remains underway).
At times like these, when governments use force and repression to try to silence fundamental rights and freedom of expression, it's even more important to speak out. Scottish member of Students for a Free Tibet Iain Thom clearly conveyed this in an interview with ABC News while he was outside the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, hanging 120 feet up a light pole affixed to a banner reading "One World One Dream Free Tibet":
One climber, who identified himself as Ian from Edinburgh, Scotland, told ABC News via mobile phone while climbing down that he hoped his "skills would be useful to call for a real difference."
He said he entered China with a group from the United Kingdom on a tourist visa.
"I'll probably get detained by the police and then ejected out of the country but I believe it's not anywhere near the risk or the fear that Tibetans are living under the occupation of the Chinese government," he said.
Iain and three other Tibetan independence activists stood up and took action to amplify what is made clear every day by Tibetans inside and outside Tibet: freedom is what Tibetans want and now is not a time where the world can sit idly by, pretending that there is nothing to be said while we focus our attention on China's Olympics. This action was taken because at this very moment the Chinese government is violently crushing the Tibetan people, and attempting to silence their cries for freedom and human rights. China isn't likely to stop their crackdown in Tibet without tremendous international pressure. Watching the coverage of the Bird's Nest banner action, it strikes me that the work of four protesters is succeeding in making China's political shame an issue during these Games.
While Iain and his colleagues were detained following the protest, ESPN journalist Arty Berko was on hand to document the Bird's Nest banner action. Yet as he photographed one of the climbers and began to interview him to understand the action, he was mobbed by Chinese police and intensely nationalistic civilian bystanders who "angr[ily] and aggressive[ly]" tried to get him to cease his documentation of the protest. Contrary to the rules agreed to by Beijing as a condition for hosting the Games, the police tried to intimidate Berko not covering this political protest at all. Fortunately for us all, Berko did not cease in his journalistic drive and he has reproduced an account of the scene, complete with photos. Here's an excerpt of his post:
Some of the policemen walked toward me and grabbed me by the arm. They were angry and aggressive while holding on to me, yelling in my face. But I still kept yelling, "TV! Media! Press! TV! Media! Press!" The policemen were speaking into their walkie-talkies, but I didn't understand what they were saying.
I then went back to the bottom of the hill and took more pictures. By that point, a fire truck pulled up and moved a cherry picker up the pole to try to bring down the protester. The same civilian came down the hill and started screaming at me again. Some of the onlookers joined in, and I was circled by people who started pushing and shoving me, screaming and pointing to the stadium. I never got hit or punched, but I was definitely physically accosted. I was trying to be smart about it and I wasn't hitting anyone, but I kept yelling, "Media! Press!"
This is a frightening twist on an otherwise peaceful protest, yet the move towards violence wasn't undertaken by demonstrators, but on those wishing to silence not just China's critics, but those who would merely report the existence of critics during the Games.
The Chinese leadership is draping itself in Olympic values as it prepares to welcome the world to the Games. But the real face of the Chinese leadership can be seen in its intensifying crackdown in Tibet, which is taking place even as the athletes gather for the Opening Ceremonies. I and others will continue to speak out and amplify the voices of Tibetans who have consistently demanded freedom from China's military occupation for the last fifty years. Stay tuned for further updates on the protests surrounding the Beijing Olympics and how the international community is demanding freedom for Tibet and human rights for Tibetans.
For more updates on Tibet & the 2008 Beijing Olympics, visit http://freetibet2008.org. Tibet Will Be Free, the official blog of Students for a Free Tibet, is also a great resource for news and updates on protests from around the globe.
Matt Browner-Hamlin is a Democratic internet strategist, writer, and consultant. He has worked with Students for a Free Tibet for over eight years, including two years as a full-time staff member. The views expressed are his alone and not the views of any of his clients.