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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Crossing the great 'firewall of China'

March 19, 2009

Hannah Gardner, Foreign Correspondent
The National (UAE)
March 16. 2009

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks blow ceremonial
horns during a prayer session at monastery in
Dharmsala, India. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo

Dharamsala, India // Tsering flips between the
instant message windows flashing on the computer
screen before her, and with a flurry of
keystrokes she updates each one in fluent Chinese.

In the brief moments when they all fall dim she
reaches for a sip of milky tea and a bite of a cold steamed bun.

It is late afternoon in Tsering’s adopted
hometown of Dharamsala, and two and a half hours
further east in China the working day is over and
millions are heading home, or to internet cafes, to socialise online.

This is the busiest part of Tsering’s day, but
unlike the majority of people she meets on QQ,
China’s biggest social networking site, she is
not looking for love or friendship – she is working.

With each new interlocutor she gently introduces
the subject of her homeland Tibet and if they
seem responsive she tells them more about her
culture, religion and the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet 50 years ago tomorrow.

Tsering is able to do this because she was
brought up in Tibet where she received a Chinese education.

Now, as part of a groundbreaking project she and
10 other recent arrivals, are putting that
knowledge to use, as they seek to bypass the
Chinese government and speak straight to the
Chinese people, in the hope that one day they
will help shape Beijing’s policies.

Their job, however, is not an easy one.

With a staff of 11 they can only contact a tiny
percentage of China’s 300 million netizens, many
of whom are uninterested or unwilling to discuss
politics. Those that are willing are often fiercely nationalistic.

"Sometimes we get abused," she said. She and her
colleagues are also careful not to disclose any
real details about themselves, for fear the
Chinese authorities may harass their relatives still living inside Tibet.

Tsering estimates that, of the 50 people she
contacts every day, about five are willing to
have the kind of discussion she is aiming for.

Often the people she is chatting to break off at
the very moment when she feels she can make a
change. One 18-year-old student in Dong Bei
hastily retreats from the conversation after
Tsering offers to send him a news article on
Tibet that would otherwise be hard to access from
behind China’s "Great Firewall."

"He is young and afraid," she said, before
starting the painstaking task of winning another stranger’s confidence.

During the past few weeks, her work been
especially tough. With several sensitive Tibetan
anniversaries in March, many Chinese netizens
have been especially keen to avoid controversial
issues, mindful that the government is likely to be extra watchful.

But despite the difficulties, many in the exiled
community believe projects such as these offer
the best hope of a solution to the stalemate that
surrounds the issue of greater Tibetan autonomy.

On the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising
against Chinese rule last week, the Dalai Lama
urged all Tibetans to "continue to work for
friendship with the Chinese people."

The project also reflects an increasing
realisation that the growing number of refugees
in Dharamsala who speak Mandarin have a valuable role to play.

"I can do this better than other people. I know
the Chinese people better, I know how they
think," said Sonam, 32, who works alongside
Tsering and who has lived in Beijing and Shanghai. He left Tibet in 2002.

Part of their expertise is understanding how
little the Chinese in the big cities know about Tibet.

"They just know we like singing and dancing and
that there’s a Potala Place in Lhasa," Sonam said.

Most do not even know that the
government-in-exile is seeking greater religious
and cultural freedom, not independence.

The project is the brainchild of another Tibetan
exile, Thubten Samdup, who now lives in Canada.

Born in Lhasa in 1951, Mr Samdup escaped to India
in 1959 a few months after the Dalai Lama. In
1980, at the age of 23, he moved to Canada, where
he worked for a company that builds flight simulators.

For 17 years he headed up the Dalai Lama
Foundation in Canada trying to generate as much
local and international support for Tibet as he
could through media campaigns and lobbying.

But when, in 2004, a massive drive to get
Canadian members of parliament on side resulted
in no change in policy, he became disillusioned
and took a year off to reformulate his plans.

"For 50 years Tibetans have been reasonable,
saying, ‘Look at us, don’t you have any sympathy
for us?’ -- Mr Samdup said. "But a demonstration
is forgotten the next day, and it just leaves the Chinese feeling alienated.

"I worked out that our returns would be much
better if we worked with the Chinese people."

His initial idea was to set up a radio station,
but the cost of overcoming China’s radio wave
jammers made the project unfeasible.

Then he stumbled across figures for internet
usage in China, and the idea was born.

"If you can win one person over in a chat room,
you have actually won 10 people over," he said.

In Sept 2006, he set up Online Outreach, in a
small office clinging to the side of the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

The numbers -- 45 per cent of China’s 300m
internet users visit social networking sites,
according to US-based internet marketing research
firm comScore -- also mean it is harder for the
authorities to catch people discussing banned
topics or accessing censored material.

Just to be on the safe side, however, the
employees of Online Outreach, switch between
different instant messaging sites and regularly change their avatars.

Occasionally, they change their online
personalities for other reasons too. Sonam
sometimes pretends to be a woman. Why? No doubt to avoid exchanges like this.

"Hi, want to chat?" asks Sonam.

"You male or female?" the guy on the other end asks.


"Not interested," comes the reply, and the connection goes dead.
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