This was supposed to be China's week. The launch of the longest Olympic torch relay in history was heralded in the Chinese press as a spectacle that would bring the nation glory, until Monday, when editors of Beijing's newspapers struggled to edit blood-covered Tibetan protesters out of photos of the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece.
China's week has become Tibet's moment. Tibetans and their supporters are being driven by the belief that this Olympic year and its vast media attention are a last opportunity to challenge Beijing's rule. It now looks like activists have succeeded in making China's 57-year occupation of the territory the dominant issue of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Behind this dramatic capture of the world's attention are three young women from British Columbia, who have spent much of the seven years since China won the Games organizing thousands of international volunteers and hundreds of Tibet-related organizations into a six-month campaign of stealth activism intended to humiliate China before an international audience.
Standing just to the edge of the TV cameras in Greece on Monday was Kate Woznow, a 28-year-old Vancouverite who organized the day's attention-grabbing interventions — blood-covered Tibetans lay down in front of the torch carrier during the lighting ceremony — from the offices of Students for a Free Tibet in New York, where she runs the Olympic-related campaign:
We realized seven years ago, when China got the Olympics, what an incredible opportunity this would be to shine a spotlight on the terrible treatment of Tibet," she said as she arrived in London to organize a day of demonstrations to coincide with the torch's arrival in Beijing on Monday.
The Tibet cause has been popular on campuses for years, and has attracted celebrities such as actor Richard Gere, but it has long had the somewhat passive image typified by bumper stickers and drum circles. The runup to the Olympics has changed that, as have the events in Tibet this month, which have reportedly seen more than 100 Tibetans killed by Chinese authorities in nationwide uprisings that seem to have been spurred by the Olympics protests.
"Young people really got it; they've been signing up and telling us that they have a real determination to push the bar, to make this the year when there's some change for Tibet. They know that every media organization in the world is going to be focused on the Olympics, so for years we've realized that what we have to do is to be creative and find ways to insert the Tibet issue into that frame."
As Ms. Woznow was bailing the Tibetan students out of Greek jail (the two who appeared most prominently on TV were Swiss citizens), another B.C. woman, 28-year-old Freya Putt, was in her office in Washington, preparing documents that would be sent to 150 Tibet support groups around the world giving them detailed notes on how to behave when organizing similar disruptions as the torch makes its six-month trip around the world.