By Kathy Ni Keefe
HongKong, July 2: Sitting in a 22nd floor hotel room in Hong Kong, Beijing suddenly feels like a million miles away instead of just a three hour plane ride of fitful sleep. We touched down here Friday night at around 9:30 pm after two days in China that brought me increased hope in the strength, determination, and capability of the worldwide movement to Free Tibet!
I flew to Germany from Santa Fe on June 15th expecting to spend two weeks at SFT action camp, teaching direct action climbing and workshops; drinking in the inspiration from students and fellow trainers. Last summer we held a camp at Pfauenhof, the same dharma center in Germany and I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and climbing and camping in the grassy fields we shared with several very hairy Icelandic ponies. I expected to be back in the U.S. on the 28th of June. I didn’t expect to hear the news we received the morning of June 21st.
“What?! The train leaves on July 1st??” It’s been a long time since I’ve felt my jaw drop so dramatically. Lhadon had just received an e-mail confirming that the 1st train from the heart of China – Beijing – to the heart of Tibet – Lhasa – was departing with a cargo of foreign journalists going to Tibet to write about China’s new railway. We had thought the foreign journalists would be going on the train in August. Now they were going in July and this was an incredible opportunity to expose the propaganda of the Chinese government. To cut into their public relations campaign aimed at telling the world that this railway would bring positive development into Tibet. In my heart, I knew China’s Tibet railway would be damaging to the identity of Tibetans, further overwhelming them in their own country with more Chinese settlers, extracting valuable resources from the forests and mountains, and providing an infrastructure for increased militarization and colonization of Tibet. I knew this train leaving on the 1st was a huge political move for China. And I knew at that moment that I would soon be on a plane for Beijing. We had to act. To show the Chinese government that even though the railway was already built, this was just beginning of trouble for them. And to continue to show Tibetans inside Tibet that many, many people around the world are fighting with them.
I was certainly not the only one that felt that way. At the first break in the camp schedule, about 7 of us who had been talking about what we would do when the railway opened sat down and began to strategize. Could we go to China on such short notice and pre-empt what the Chinese government hoped would be a glorious celebration? Could we insert ourselves into every news story that was written about the railway, showing its true purpose of exploitation? Yes, we thought we could. And we would.
The next five days passed with incredible speed, each moment filled with activity. We were all involved heavily in the logistics and trainings of the action camp, and we were determined to keep it moving forward as smoothly and effectively as we could. At almost every meal time and break period we put our heads together…Lhadon, Kate, Omi, Tom, and myself…while Alma, Thupten, Tendor, and Matt held the camp together, jumping in repeatedly to help us with travel logistics and advice. I was sad to miss out on getting to know the students at the camp more, but knew to meet our deadline, we had to be quick. On June 26th, with a well-established yet extremely flexible plan in mind, Lhadon, Kate, Omi, Tom and I got on a plane for Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, we met up with Jack, another SFT’er, and Katie and Matt from the Free Tibet Campaign based in London. We spent the little time we had finalizing as many details as we could….How would we communicate on the ground? Who would communicate with the media and how? Who would scout the train station? How would we decide exactly what our action would be? How would we get our footage out of China? Each decision and task determined by a fine line of skill level, strategy, time constraints and safety.
The next day, we made our move into China. If Hong Kong felt extremely different from what I was used to, China felt another world away. The language barrier was extreme and it made me realize how spoiled I am to have so many people in the world speak the same language I do. We did our best, though, and met up with Jia Ching and another colleague on the ground, both of whom spoke Mandarin and helped us tremendously.
Omi and I went straight from the airport to the train station to scout. It was now the afternoon of the 28th (we lost a day with the time change) and it seemed more and more likely we needed to be ready to go on the 30th. We wanted to pre-empt the entire event the Chinese government had planned for July 1st. To make our story be the first thing the foreign journalists wrote about for their trip. To make the Chinese government’s statements to the press have to be in response to our action. We had very little time…
The next two days are fairly indescribable. Each moment filled with information coming in and decisions going out. We worked in smaller teams, those that would carry out the action, those that would film the action, and those that would carry our story directly to the press. We communicated sparingly as a full group, only as needed. Not wanting to be found out. As new information came in, we changed our scenario several times, always keeping in mind what image would be the most compelling. What would get our story out the farthest? What was possible? After several scouting trips to the site, we decided on our action….Katie and Omi and I, a tri-national team, would climb out through a window in a second story stairwell onto a ledge outside and unfurl a banner that read “China’s Tibet Railway: Designed to Destroy.”
As we walked to the train station from our hotel on the day of the action, my stomach felt knotted. What would the police response be like? We had heard of western activists being treated leniently in China. And some not so leniently. What would happen to us? Even as these questions ran through my head, I knew what I needed to do. I knew that my voice could be heard and that I was able and willing to carry out this action. I knew that the Tibetans inside Tibet who have grave concerns about this railway could not speak out as I could without the risk of imprisonment, torture, and even death. We had prepared well and we were ready.
As we walked into the station, my nervousness subsided. We were in motion. Omi took a walk by the window to make sure all was well while Katie and I sipped orange soda at a café. It was time. One by one, we climbed through the window and out onto the ledge. People crowded the square below, filing into the station, on their way to journeys unknown to us. With our banner unfurled we stood delivering our message. This train is a lie. It is not for Tibetans. It is a political move by Chinese government officials. It is designed to destroy.
We expected to get hauled away quickly and aggressively and were surprised that we were able to stand out on the ledge for at least 5 minutes. Security had seen us, but no one apparently wanted to take responsibility. Finally, the police came, took us back inside, and lead us to the police station across the square. After a few hours of questioning about why and how we did this, we were free to go. This quick release seemed to come from up on high…a desire to make us go away as quickly as possible. A sign that the pressure and building scrutiny around the railway was being felt.
And away we went, hustling into a cab, picking up our belongings and heading for a plane to Hong Kong; all the while our phones ringing with reporters wanting to do interviews. The New York Times. Public Radio International, The Australian Broadcast Company, AP Wire service. Lhadon and Matt were in Hong Kong streaming the story out to the press. Kate and Jia Ching were still on the ground giving more information to reporters. And Tom and Jack had left right after the action went down, to carry footage to Hong Kong. Alma, Thupten, Tendor, Matt, Han, Sophia, and Bianca were all back in the office in New York City, staying up all night to call our embassies and make more connections to the press. By midnight, all of us who had gone into Beijing were back in our familiar neighborhood in Hong Kong, looking at all the media postings on the internet. There were news stories from around the world. India, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia, Poland, Katar, South Africa, the US, the UK, Germany, Canada, and more…We couldn’t believe our success! Our good fortune! We had set our goal and achieved it.
Tonight we have a live interview with Radio Free Asia that broadcasts into Tibet. We will be heading back home shortly. I feel quite tired yet extremely honored to be able to use my own freedom to support Tibetans in their fight for freedom. I feel extremely grateful to know all the people on this action team who I trust with my life. And I thank everyone around the world that was supporting us from afar. We are content with this action. And yet, there is much more work to do. We will continue to work with Tibetans and other Tibet supporters in the growing movement for Tibetan freedom…bringing the message to end the Chinese occupation of Tibet onto the world stage in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. We will not stop until Tibet is free.
And Tibet will be free.
Note: Kathy, Katie and Omi scaled the façade of Beijing’s Central Railway Station and unfurled a banner reading “China’s Tibet Railway: Designed to Destroy." The daring action was staged on June 30, the eve of the launch of the controversial Chinese railway to Tibet.