Protesters play secret agents

9 Comments

sft-24If ever an argument needed to be made for watching less TV, the groups of Western “Free Tibet” protesters that have snuck in to China are it.

There’s a four-page article running on the Washington Post’s site which explains in detail the mission of a group funded by Students for a Free Tibet (cue Mission Impossible music – or that 24 countdown tone).

I mean, I respect that these folks want to stand up for a cause they feel is very important. I admire that they travelled to an unknown land and risked unknown punishments to try and get their voice heard – but it’s hard to read about their methods and not think: “You guys watch WAY TOO MANY National Security action-dramas.”

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.

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.

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.

Anyone willing to bet that the guy coordinating things back in the US, surely a veteran of Seattle ’99, was endearingly dubbed “The Handler”?

What irritates me, and in turn disinterests me in their cause, is that the Tibetan protesters (95% of which aren’t Tibetan, nor ever been to Tibet) – much like the TV terrorists they seem bent on stealing methodology from – come off as close-minded fanatics that only have an interest in pushing their view – not in seeking any form of “truth”.

The Tibetan issue, like any issue really, is a multi-sided beast that just isn’t well represented in the sharpie ‘n’ sheet monochrome of a protester’s banner.

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.

Notice how no one’s motivation seems to be “after travelling to Tibet and seeing the squalid conditions and repression that Chinese ‘liberation’ has brought”?

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that they are quite willing to travel half-way across the globe to champion the cause de l’année, but not to visit the object of their protest and see it for themselves. Granted, travel to Tibet in recent months has been sketchy, but for years prior to the riots this past spring it was wide open and happily taking in virtually whoever wanted to go.

[Kelly Osborne, 39, a youth minister from Oklahoma City] 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.

You tell ‘em Kel.

Talk on Protesters play secret agents


9 Comments
  1. I wonder if anyone of them has read anything about Tibet that doesn’t come for SFT. Since this is the cause celebre of the moment they were probably too busy get ready to take action to actually research the cause of where they were going.

    J.

  2. I do like their style. Very mercenary. And they’ve not researched their cause. Even more mercenary.

    Sort of… volunteer mercenaries to the fashionable revolutionary trend whatever that may be. Is there a more colloquial way to express that?

    Naive fools?

  3. I’m really sorry I saw this post so late. I’ve just traveled back to the U.S., and gotten violently sick with some kind of food poisoning on the way, so have been laid up.

    Ryan, I’m really disappointed. This post reminds me a lot of the kinds of things you read by the 50-cent party members on Chinese forums. These protesters should be given kudos; they deserve our support, not our derision.

    First of all, you make fun of the precautions that they took not to get caught. But, they were all reasonable, in my opinion. The Chinese security apparatus is frighteningly efficient, and getting better all the time. And the bottom line is, nobody knows just how good they are, so it’s better to err on the side of paranoia. Especially when it comes to electronic communication, I think they were right to be very cautious.

    I don’t know why you quoted this: “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.” Here’s their press release of this event, and you can see the banner they hung required all those tools. It’s pretty impressive.

    One criticism I would agree with is that they’re not very effective at getting across their message here. I’ve thought for a long time that the slogan “Free Tibet 西藏自由” doesn’t work — has no chance of winning over any support from Chinese people. In this post on my blog I talked about my idea to hang a banner that said something different, that I thought might actually make people think for a second.

    So, who knows if this kind of peaceful protest has any effect, or ever will? Maybe nobody, but the West has a long tradition of it, and often in the past, it has had an effect. I think that’s why the Chinese government is so scared of it. Also, the fact that they are foreigners protesting in China makes it less likely that Chinese people will listen, but there again, that’s mostly because the Chinese government has been so effective at planting the “foreigners are all out to split China apart” meme.

    So I can understand criticizing their methods as not very effective, but in this post you’re just ridiculing them, which is wrong. They are incredibly brave.

    You said you get disinterested in their cause because they “come off as closed-minded fanatics that only have an interest in pushing their view – not in seeking any form of ‘truth'”. But are they? How do you know? In a protest action like this, of course the slogan has to be short and one-sided (you only have so much banner real-estate). But you don’t know anything about them, really. Why do you assume that their closed-minded fanatics? Have you read their website? (I admit I haven’t, but my point is that you shouldn’t just assume).

    You also say a couple of times that the only experience that they could have had that would make their voices worth being heard would be for them to have traveled to Tibet and seen the conditions with their own eyes. This is right out of the 50-cent party handbook! That doesn’t make any sense … maybe that’s a valuable bit of experience, but when I’m talking to somebody about this issue, I rank it about ninth, I guess.

    The Chinese people love to dismiss protesters as no-nothing fanatics, but you know as well as I do that they often know much, much less (or what they know is just plain wrong). I think it comes from arrogance that they live there, that it’s their country. Is it possible that you’re guilty of a little expat-arrogance, since you’ve been there for so long?

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    Sorry to disappoint? However, I’ve yet to receive my 50-cent Party card in the mail (can’t party without it) so, if I’m saying it, and they’re saying it, and some other folks are saying it – maybe there’s something to it. Or maybe not.

    I hate, despise really, that the ignorance of the West in the last few months has pushed me to defending this place. Anyone that’s read the drivel I write for any length of time knows that this is not at all the usual for me. More often than not I am vocally critical of the policies in China (and still am).

    However, I’d like to consider myself a reasonably free thinking individual and wont stick to simply criticizing one side of the debate simply because I look like I belong on the other side. Wrong is wrong and stupid is stupid.

    In my (as informed as it can be) opinion – SFT is both.

    The one point you agree with is the point. Protest without a consideration of the effectiveness is ego-stroking pseudo-altruism.

    I will give you that me being here and having listened to this “free Tibet” argument for “so long” has sculptured my opinion on the matter. What you’re calling “expat-arrogance” I call a well-rounded perspective – or at least being informed enough to say I’m not well-informed enough to protest about it.

    I do know a bit about SFT. Well, as much as one can read online. I know that they scraped together over a million bucks for these “operations” and the poor folk in Tibet are no closer to living better lives for the effort.

    SFT are pushing an agenda, and though I don’t disagree with the “feel good” part of that agenda (more freedoms and better living conditions for the fine folk of Tibet), I completely disagree with the reality of that agenda (the desires of an equally repressive governing body to return from exile and regain power).

    They use words like “repression” to paint a picture of Tibet, ironically the same word many Westerners use to paint a picture of China. And as ignorant of the outside world as most Chinese are, only the few are truly repressed.

    Now, of course, no repression should exist. Liberty and justice for all. But that’s a mighty glass house, particularly for an American-led organization, to be building.

    So, where you put going there as 9th on your list. I still think actually finding out if there’s truth to the cause you’re supporting should be a bit higher on the list – whether Chinese people say it or not. See, I don’t need to make my mind up based on whether a Chinese person, an American person, a news broadcaster, a liberal, a conservative, a Party member or a protester says.

    I need to see it, feel it or touch it myself for me to understand it and believe in it.

    And all I see when I look at the SFT protesters and their actions are a bunch of kids (adults or not) that want to feel a bit like a super hero saving the repressed masses of far-off lands.

    And you’re talking about Chinese arrogance?

    (PS: Hope you’re feeling better man.)

  5. (PS: Hope you’re feeling better man.)

    Much better today, thanks!! The consensus is that I got Salmonella from putting a raw egg into my banana milkshake, a few days before I left China. Doh!

    However, I’ve yet to receive my 50-cent Party card in the mail

    I can’t send you a card, but I can Paypal you 50-cents, how would that be?

    I’d like to consider myself a reasonably free thinking individual and wont stick to simply criticizing one side of the debate simply because I look like I belong on the other side. Wrong is wrong and stupid is stupid.

    I totally agree with this — I’m glad your postings aren’t all one-sided.

    The one point you agree with is the point. Protest without a consideration of the effectiveness is ego-stroking pseudo-altruism.

    Ha ha, I never said that. I never even said that I thought they didn’t consider their effectiveness … all I said was that, in fact, they’re not very effective at getting across their message here. As for it being “ego-stroking pseudo-altruism”, well, that’s very judgemental. Why do people protest? I’m sure there are lots of reasons. Ego-stroking is undoubtedly one of them, but to paint them all with such a broad negative brush is unfair. Also, I’d ask you some questions: does it make it better if they do consider the effectiveness? What if they consider the effectiveness, but they still come up with an ineffective plan?

    What you’re calling “expat-arrogance” I call a well-rounded perspective – or at least being informed enough to say I’m not well-informed enough to protest about it.

    You’re being arrogant because you’re assuming that your type of experience is the only valid way to arrive at the truth about this issue, the same way that the Chinese people assume that only they know the real story.

    BTW, you can read bios of those protesters on the SFT website. What do you know? It turns out one, Nicole Rycroft, has been to Tibet. I wonder, does that change your opinion of the group at all? My main point is: why do you just assume that your “well-rounded perspective” is better than their perspectives (which, I’m sure if you asked them, they would also say were well-rounded)?

    So, where you put going there as 9th on your list. I still think actually finding out if there’s truth to the cause you’re supporting should be a bit higher on the list

    Hold on there, cowboy … that’s not what I said at all. (You should know me well enough to know that I’ll call you on it every time you twist my words.) I said going to Tibet was ninth, not finding out the truth.

    And all I see when I look at the SFT protesters and their actions are a bunch of kids (adults or not) that want to feel a bit like a super hero saving the repressed masses of far-off lands.

    This attitude is what really bothers me. Consider the big picture, after all. All that they did was to hang a banner with a slogan — which is just a simple form of expression. They didn’t hurt anybody. I’d hope you and I would both agree that they had a basic right to do it (laying aside the issue of trespessing). They didn’t even deface anything — didn’t damage the original poster. Scorning these kinds of protesters is, in my opinion, a form of blaming the victim.

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    Glad you’re feeling better – and yeah, raw eggs in China… risky at best. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen eggs in refrigeration here.

    You’re being arrogant because you’re assuming that your type of experience is the only valid way to arrive at the truth about this issue, the same way that the Chinese people assume that only they know the real story.

    You’re right – my intention wasn’t to say “my way is best” or “only I know the truth” by any means – in fact, I don’t know. When I look at the Tibet issue I’m conflicted. Like many N. Americans I grew up with the Richard Gere’s and Beastie Boys of the world defining my view on Tibet.

    Coming to China has expanded that view, but at the same time it has terribly muddled it to the point where I can’t feel confident to have a strong opinion about the direction Tibet “should” be taking. Ultimately, it matters little – it’s not for me to decide, it’s for Tibetans and Chinese to decide.

    Consider the big picture, after all. All that they did was to hang a banner with a slogan — which is just a simple form of expression.

    That’s not all they did Chris – that was the result. but you’re right, I’m not disagreeing they don’t have a basic right for expression, and it was essentially harmless.

    And my agreement with that basic right fuels myself to do the same – ie. to say I think the result was misinformed, misleading and disrespectful. These are not American protesters protesting in America (or UK protesters protesting in the UK), they are visitors to China – and as much as I agree every person on the planet should have the right to freely protest whatever stupid thing they want, sovereignty of a nation does play a part. If they had a few Chinese people with them, I may feel different on this point.

    Additionally, what they did was convince people outside of China and with undeniably limited exposure to the issue to donate a million bucks to support this massive expedition of drawing attention to their agenda/cause. Now, assuming you can’t get money unless you convince people of your purpose, and that the only “facts” you’re giving someone to make that decision are your facts… then you’re falsely educating people.

    Of course being properly informed on any topic is a personal responsibility and not the responsibility of an agenda-pushing “non-profit” (really depends on how you define “profit” doesn’t it). But the plight of peaceful Buddhist monks looking to reclaim their homeland from the evil repression of Communist dictatorship is not a tough sell to your average Westerner and through cultural bias most are happy to just believe it and support it.

    And that, more than anything else, is my problem with an organization like this – because not only does it feed off of that Western ignorance, it manipulates it and, worst of all, it perpetuates it.

    I truly believe organizations that fight for the rights of those who are too poor or repressed to fight for themselves deserve our respect, support and admiration – I just don’t feel SFT is such an organization.

  7. Free Tibet? As far as I know Tibet has been part of China since the Japanese invaded China. I know Tibet has tried to separate many times. I really believe there are many American Chinese who would like to start a revolution in Tibet.
    Tibet is as free as it’s going to be.

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