Protest Hide and Seek in Beijing

“Where are you going?” a Hotel G employee demands.

“Err… I’m going to see a friend on the eighth floor,” says one western hack.

“There is no eighth floor in our hotel,” the man, the Spanish director of guest services in the new boutique hotel in Beijing, snaps back.

Seven of us sneak up the side stairs to room 612 where a nervous young German man asks us to sit down. We had been invited by a series of covert text messages to a screening of a documentary released by a Swiss-based group called Filming for Tibet. Just minutes into the video however, the hotel’s general manager comes in, switches off the television, and appeals to us to leave.

“You know the situation in China,” says the hotel manager. “It's better for us if you leave ... The PSB [police] are downstairs and know you are here.”

We leave grudgingly without seeing the film. Downstairs the journalists who had been blocked from coming up are still clumped aimlessly in the lobby. Hours later Hotel G’s reception says it is not accepting guests but refused to confirm that it was because of the morning’s shenanigans.

In the video, called Leaving Fear Behind, local Tibetans are asked what they think about the Olympic Games. Clips of the movie are now available on their website – http://www.leavingfearbehind.com ‑ which, incidentally, took the Chinese net police two days to block. Not unsurprisingly the interviewees are no cheerleaders for the Games.

“I think the Olympics are important but I don’t like them here,” says one young Tibetan woman shown in the film.

The two Tibetan filmmakers, Dhondup Wangchen and Gyaljong Tsetrin, were arrested in March shortly after they handed over the tapes, according to Filming in Tibet. They are still in detention.

“We wanted to get Tibetan voices heard in China on the eve of the Olympics,” says Dechen Pemba, spokesperson for Filming in Tibet. “We wanted to let the world know that there is something else going on behind China’s Olympic façade.”

Pemba, who is a British citizen of Tibetan ethnicity, was deported from China last month after being accused of being a member of a radical pro-Tibetan group. She denied the charge.

The problem is that it’s very difficult to attract media attention during the Olympics while also dodging Beijing’s hardcore security. The lengths activists have to go to stage a protest often becomes the news, obscuring their message.

The BBC – which attended an earlier uninterrupted screening that morning of the protest film ‑ called the documentary showing a “cloak-and-dagger” publicity stunt, and buried the story of the jailed filmmakers beneath a lengthy account of how it took place.

Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) did a better job at attracting attention. Four western members of the organization unfurled giant pro-Tibet banners and flags outside the Bird’s Nest national stadium before the games opened, but they had to do it at 5am to slip past security.

Protest movements need numbers and so far they just don’t have it. Tough visa restrictions, for one, have limited the numbers of foreign dissidents that could get here. Locals aren’t willing to take part, either because they’re not interested or don’t support the cause or because they know there are tough penalties for protesting in public.

Overseas activists say they are planning more such protests over the next two weeks. And despite Chinese media reports that Tibetan suicide squads are planning to ruin the Games, pro-Tibet organizations are likely to keep to peaceful banner-waving protests, say western commentators.

“I would certainly expect other Tibetan groups will protest during these Games, but the Tibetan independence movement is a movement which is committed to non-violence,” says Matt Browner-Hamlin, a US-based political consultant and former member of SFT.

The Tibetan Youth Congress is often cited by Chinese media as a group that incites or uses violence. Browner-Hamlin says that just isn’t true.

“In my experience the Tibetan Youth Congress is a group which is dedicated to non-violence, grassroots organizing and community building in the exile community and couldn’t be further from the way it’s been depicted of late by the official Chinese media,” he adds.

China is also worried about violence from Muslim separatists living in its western region of Xinjiang.

Last week, 16 Chinese policemen were killed in Kashgar after separatists drove a truck into a police station and lobbed grenades inside, according to state media. While no organization has been named in that attack, two Uighers, Turkic Muslims who live in Xinjiang, were arrested.

Most commentators though doubt the movement is organized enough to penetrate Beijing’s tight security to disrupt the Games.

But for peaceful protesters the hype of the Olympics is a double-edged sword. It’s the perfect time to make a statement with the whole world watching – some 25,000 journalists are in town after all – but with security at maximum levels it’s almost impossible to do it effectively.

Thus, the simple showing of a video in a private hotel room to a gaggle of reporters can turn into a farce.