“Where are you going?” a Hotel G employee demands.
“Err… I’m going to see a friend on the eighth floor,” says one western
“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.
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
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,
Most commentators though doubt the movement is organized enough to penetrate
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.