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A Mission of Dissent In the Heart of Beijing

The grassroots activist group has managed to pull off multiple demonstrations since Aug. 6. Video by Ariana Eunjung Cha

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 23, 2008

BEIJING -- Sam Maron came to China posing as a tourist excited about his first trip to the country. With his point-and-shoot camera and monotone T-shirts, he blended into the crowds of other foreigners in town for the Olympic Games.

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Had Chinese authorities bothered to check his luggage and that of his companions, they might have gotten a hint of what was to come: a 25-by-15-foot white nylon sheet, a handful of black Sharpie markers, climbing ropes, harnesses and walkie-talkies.

Within days of the group's arrival, the items had been assembled.

Shortly before dawn on Aug. 15, Maron, two other Americans, a Canadian woman and a British man were hanging off the side of a billboard next to the new headquarters of China's state-run television station, CCTV, and raising a banner that said "Free Tibet."

It was yet another victory for Students for a Free Tibet, an activist organization based in New York that has pulled off eight protests over two weeks in one of the most locked-down countries in the world, a record far surpassing that of any other group.

Activists upset over China's hosting of the Games had hoped demonstrators would descend on Beijing in droves this month. The groups' causes included human rights, religious freedom, environmentalism and media freedom, as well as Darfur and China's role there.

But with the Olympics ending on Sunday, few groups have demonstrated. Many activists proved unable to evade Chinese security authorities long enough to stage a successful protest; others, facing severe visa restrictions, never even got into the country.

Athletes, meanwhile, appear largely to have adhered to an International Olympic Committee rule forbidding political, religious or racial protests at Olympic sites or venues, including the athletes' village. Among the rare exceptions was a Polish weightlifter, Szymon Kolecki, who shaved his head before winning a silver medal on Sunday and indicated it was a gesture of solidarity with Tibetan monks.

Protests by Students for a Free Tibet have been far more theatrical. As of Friday, 55 volunteers from the group had been detained or deported for their short-lived demonstrations in some of Beijing's most iconic venues: Tiananmen Square, the National Stadium, the Olympic Green. Six are still being held on a 10-day detention sentence, and four were taken away by police Thursday, their whereabouts unknown.

How the group, a grass-roots organization using about 150 volunteers and a budget of $1 million in donations, managed to outmaneuver the vast Chinese security apparatus is a study in persistence, planning and passion. Their goal was to draw attention to what they say is the oppression of a region that has been under Beijing's control since 1950.

Authorities in Beijing maintain that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and that foreigners do not understand the situation there. Protesters, they say, are intent on simply embarrassing China.

Maron, 22, who graduated from the University of Vermont in May, doesn't see it that way.

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