x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Crossing the great 'firewall of China'

Tibetan campaigners use internet to promote their culture to the people but fear over reprisals is restricting the responses.

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks blow ceremonial horns during a prayer session at monastery in Dharmsala, India.
Exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks blow ceremonial horns during a prayer session at monastery in Dharmsala, India.

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.

"Male." "Not interested," comes the reply, and the connection goes dead. hgardner@thenational.ae