Day One

August 2nd, 2007 § 16

I can’t believe I’m here. It’s surreal and overwhelming. The heat. The throngs of people everywhere. But somehow I feel calm. I’m not sure why… I just do. Every so often I get a fluttering in my stomach – like this morning when I bumped into a police officer just as I was getting off the plane – but otherwise, I’m fine. “Phil” met me at the airport. He’s a good friend and was a welcome sight. Unlike me, he’s been here before and so has been taking the lead with navigating this massive city.

We filmed this video in the taxi on our way into the city. Can you notice my goof? I clearly have a lot to learn about being in a place – for the first time in my life – where you are not allowed to talk about Tibet. But I am thankful that most of the taxi drivers here do not understand English.

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Our first stop was Tiananmen Square. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by this place. There are so many layers of history and politics and conflict here. Trying to get at the history and meaning of this place is like peeling an onion. I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t simply been renamed “Mao Square.”

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Dominating the south end of the square is the mausoleum holding the embalmed corpse of Mao Zedong. And of course to the north, that famous image of Mao hangs on “the Tiananmen” (Gate of Heavenly Peace) from which this square derives its name.

I definitely was not filled with heavenly peace when I saw Mao watching over the square. Looking at his face, all I see is the man who subjected my people to untold suffering. It wasn’t hard not to smile when we took these photos.

Aside from Mao, the other thing you can’t miss in Tiananmen and in Beijing at large is the Olympics hype. There are billboards shouting about “One World One Dream” and stores selling all the usual commemorative items.

Here I am with the Olympic mascots including the cartoon Tibetan antelope they call “Ying Ying” (we know her as “Yingsel the Rangzen Antelope” – check it out: www.yingsel2008.com).

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The plans to summit Mt. Everest with the Olympic torch, the choice of a Tibetan antelope as an official mascot, and the littering of Olympics advertising with images of smiling Tibetans clearly show that the Chinese government hopes  to use the Beijing Olympics to legitimize its rule in Tibet.

We took the below photo in front of the 2008 Olympics countdown clock on the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square. In Dharamsala, our friends have installed their own 2008 Olympics countdown clock. It’s not automatic like the one here, with LED numbers. Instead, every single night, one of them has to change it by hand, so it will be correct the next morning. This ritual reminds them daily how much time is left to prepare for one of the most important opportunities ever handed to the Tibetan freedom struggle.

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The Chinese government hopes the glow of the Olympics will blind the international community to the brutality of its occupation of Tibet. They hope the world will accept China as a leader among nations and see it as a country that is free and open. They hope the world will forget about 6 million Tibetans who continue to suffer under Chinese rule. We cannot let this happen. We must speak out and fight back. We must challenge them at every turn… and that’s why I’m here.

Let’s see how open this place really is.

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