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Wily Tibetan messengers outfox censors of 'Great Firewall' of China

March 19, 2009

Exiled Tibetan discusses the Dalai Lama with chat room users in China
Jeremy Page in Dharamsala
The Times (UK)
March 18, 2009

In a simple office overlooking the Himalayan
foothills of India a young Tibetan man sits at a
computer, trying to succeed where the Dalai Lama
has failed for 50 years -- by talking to the
Chinese. Every day, Sonam and ten other Tibetans
-- all fluent in Mandarin -- surf social
networking sites in search of Chinese people to
talk to about their homeland. It can be painstaking work.

"Hi, want to chat?" Sonam, 32, asks one man from
Beijing. "You male or female?" comes the reply.
“Male.” “Not interested." Like this one, many of
the millions of Chinese in chat rooms are
searching for love. Most do not want to talk
politics. Some become abusive when they realise
they are talking to Tibetan exiles.

Sonam contacts about fifty or so people every day
and says that half are willing to chat and five
or six want to talk in depth. He now has 200 "old
friends" to whom he sends information on the
Dalai Lama to circumvent China’s "Great
Firewall," which blocks websites about the exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader. “We don’t say this is
right or wrong, or that the Chinese Government
should be overthrown,” Sonam told The Times. “We
just give people an alternative source of information."

The aim of the project is bold: to change
attitudes towards Tibet among ordinary Chinese in
the hope that they will gradually shape Beijing’s
policies. Sonam and his colleagues can talk to
only a tiny fraction of China’s 300 million
netizens — who are notoriously nationalistic.
Arguably it offers better prospects, and more
immediate results, than the failed negotiations
between China and the Dalai Lama, who fled to India 50 years ago yesterday.

The project is the brainchild of Thupten Samdup,
a Tibetan based in Canada. He was born in Lhasa
in 1951, and escaped soon after the Dalai Lama in
1959 and, after studying in India and the US,
moved to Canada in 1980 and worked for a high-tech company.

He became the head of the Dalai Lama Foundation
in Canada, and in 2004 led a campaign to get
Canadian MPs to support the Tibetan movement.
More than two thirds signed up but when that
failed to influence Canadian policy he became
frustrated, took a year out, and decided that he
was lobbying the wrong people. “There’s huge
support for the Tibet campaign internationally,
but the people who really need to be educated are
the Chinese -- these are the only people who can
deliver what we want," he said.

He established his Online Outreach Office in 2006
and now employs 11 people at an annual cost of up
to $60,000 (£42,775), most of which comes from private donations.

Four or five similar projects have been set up
since then, and Mr Samdup hopes to expand his to
involve Chinese-speaking Tibetans throughout the
200,000-strong diaspora. His staff do not want to
be identified because they have relatives in
Tibet, but they all escaped recently and some are
former government officials. That means they know
how to talk to Chinese people and can outfox the
censors. Mostly they use instant messaging
services, running up to 20 chats at a time. They
change avatars frequently because the censors
block ones that discuss politics. If they want to
send sensitive material they move to e-mail, which is harder to monitor.

The real art, however, lies in the pitch.
Sometimes Sonam pretends that he is a woman to
lure a Chinese man into conversation but mostly
he just taps into China’s online political
subculture. “You have to start with personal
stuff, then move on to social problems and
political problems, then Tibet,” he said. “It’s
no use just quoting the BBC or CNN. You have to
analyse China’s problems and show how it is
violating its own laws and constitution. The best
way is to ask questions, rather than to lecture."
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