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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet's Star Activist Warns Obama

February 8, 2010

by Tunku Varadarajan
The Daily Beast
February 6, 2010

As the president prepares to meet with the Dalai
Lama, controversial Tibetan activist Tenzin
Tsundue talks about why Obama must stay strong
with China, Google’s shameful history of
censorship, and his time in a prison camp.

"Here is an opportunity for Barack Obama to show
the world who he is, a man who does not get
threatened, who keeps humanity above business and
politics. He must prove that he is a president
who keeps his promises. Obama now cannot turn
back." These forthright words were emailed to me
by a very forthright man, Tenzin Tsundue, one of
the most energetic activists for independence among Tibetans of his generation.

The 35-year-old was born in India, and raised
there by parents who fled Tibet in 1959. He
fights the good fight -- nonviolently -- from his
base in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala,
where the Dalai Lama and thousands of other
Tibetans live in exile. Tsundue's email to me was
in response to a question I'd asked about the
Chinese threats, issued this week, that Sino-U.S.
relations would be severely damaged if Mr. Obama
were to meet the Dalai Lama later this month.

Tsundue is adamant that the meeting should take
place, as promised by the White House. "By Obama
meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the
Tibetans in Tibet who have lost their sons,
daughters and parents, and whose friends are
still missing from protests in 2008, will feel
they have not been forgotten by America, that
America still stands with them in the dream to
see freedom and democracy in Tibet and China.

"One of the secrets of China’s aggressive media
strategy," Tsundue explains, "is to try winning
the argument even before it has started, by
making the first bold statement." When dealing
with such an aggressive interlocutor, he adds,
"The basic strategy should be to be calm, and
hold your ground. If you panic, China will chase you."

But what way out is there, realistically, for the
Tibetans? Here Tsundu -- a wiry man who always
wears a red bandana -- appeals passionately, some
might say naively, to America. "The 2008 national
uprising in Tibet was a clear Tibetan mandate for
Dalai Lama's leadership. In unambiguous terms,
Tibetans said that they did not want to live
under Chinese occupation. The U.S. must go beyond
symbolic acts like the Congressional Medal and
honorary citizenship for the Dalai Lama. It can
recognize His Holiness as the spiritual and
political leader of Tibet and recognize his exile government.

"But I do not see the U.S. doing it. They are too
self-indulgent. If Obama truly means change, here
is the chance for him to prove that he deserves
the Nobel Peace Prize by supporting the Dalai Lama."

Tsundue, like many Tibetans, is embittered by
history. The U.S. supported Tibet "right up until
Nixon found friendship with China, when he shook
hands with Mao." Suddenly, the military aid,
training, and reinforcement stopped, leaving many
Tibetan soldiers trapped in the high Himalayas
with no food or arms. "Tibetans today feel used by the U.S."

How does Tsundue feel about the rise -- so
disconcerting to many -- of China as a
superpower? "I believe China can be prosperous
and developed, but not in the way it is now,
where 200 million elite and educated people rule
over one billion workers and farmers.

"While China’s villages are still stuck with the
Communist Manifesto, tech savvy businessmen in
Guangdong, Shanghai, and Beijing are running
slave labor, making young Chinese slog for 14 to
15 hours a day. And it is this cheap 'slave'
labor that most multinational companies from the
West are making money from. This is unfair from
any angle, and there is no future for this. This
will inevitably come crumbling down, which would
be bad for future business. The U.S., and for
that matter European countries, Canada, Japan,
and Australia, could be dealing with the people
of China, not with the dictatorial regime being run by Hu Jintao."

Tsundue believes that the world could one day
learn to love China for its history and its rich
culture, and also feel sympathetic toward the
Chinese people, who have suffered greatly. But
China today "is one of the most feared, if not hated, countries in the world.

"China does not need to feel glorious and
powerful by bullying small countries like east
Turkestan and Tibet. If China truly wants the
international community to love it, and to
recognize it as a dignified and developed country, it should behave like one."

What does this irrepressible activist feel about
Google's role in China? Tsundue's response to the
question is uncompromising. "When Google first
came into China, allowing the government to
censor searches on Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the
Dalai Lama, Taiwan, and the life of Mao Zedong,
we were one of the first to protest. I remember
creating an image of the word 'Gulag' out of the
Google logo, on a huge card. I was working with a
team of young Tibetans in Dharamsala. It was on a
Valentine's Day, and we said 'We do not love you anymore.'

"By taking a position akin to God, Google has
earned an unimaginably high responsibility. But
by censoring information on these sensitive
issues, the company continued to work in the
interest of the Chinese dictators. And since
Internet users in China were deprived of this
information, the very truth was reversed. Large
numbers of Google users do not know the truth
about Tiananmen and the Dalai Lama. In a way,
Google was cheating the world. This will be
marked in history as an example of how a company
collaborated with an authoritarian government and
helped keep its people blind. Tomorrow’s China will not forgive Google."

Tsundue is unwilling to grant Google credit for
its latest stand-off with the Chinese regime.
"Google collaborated with the Chinese government
to capture the Chinese Internet market. But for
Google to grow any more in China, it needed more
space to grow than the Chinese government was
allowing it. So Google wanted to shake things up
a little to make some space for itself, and
that’s why they threatened to shut up shop."

Google's apparent victory, Tsundue continues, is
hollow and sterile. "Today, in China, Google does
give you search results on all these sensitive
issues, but when you click on to the links, they
are all blocked. Can anything be more frustrating
than to be aware of the existence of a page and yet not be able to see it?"

Tsundue is idiosyncratic, and tough. A decade
ago, "tired of sloganeering in India," he crossed
clandestinely into Tibet and was arrested by
Chinese border guards. "I was blindfolded and
thrown into jail. Arrested for not having papers,
facing charges of being a separatist, I was
beaten up, deprived of sleep and fed little food.
 From the western Tibetan town of Ngari, I was
taken to Lhasa, where I was thrown into a
detention camp. There, I was threatened almost
everyday that I would be shot dead, or left to
rot in prison, if I did not confess that I had
been sent by the Indian government, or the Dalai
Lama." Eventually, after three months in prison, he was deported to India.

There, he continued to pursue Tibet's cause with
an almost theatrical vim. In 2002, on the
occasion of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to
Mumbai, he scaled scaffolding up to the 14th
floor of Zhu's hotel and unfurled a large banner
that read, "Free Tibet: China Get Out." In 2005,
when Premier Wen Jiabao visited Bangalore, he
climbed a 200-foot high tower and waved another "Free Tibet" banner.

"I am a small-time activist," he says,
self-effacingly. "A poet and a writer. I have no
mikes with high-decibel speakers, so sometimes I
climb buildings and shout from the heights. To
capture the attention of the media is not easy,
because I am nobody, and I have no promise of
money or power. So I borrow the media that trails
Chinese prime ministers and presidents.

"I have a life commitment to my work. I have
pledged that until we free Tibet, I will wear
this red bandana on my forehead. And I will take
it off only when my country is free from Chinese occupation."

* Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs
correspondent and writer at large for The Daily
Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s
Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School.
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