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Pema Doma is a Tibetan human rights and climate campaigner, a Human Rights Foundation (HRF) Freedom Fellow, and the executive director for Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a global grassroots network working for Tibetan rights. Doma has trained thousands of youth activists in community organizing and was a key organizer in #NoBeijing2022, a global campaign against China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. 

Most recently, Doma sought to raise awareness of China’s expanding surveillance state and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics of biometric repression, including mass DNA collection in Tibet. Last week, the United States biotech company Thermo Fisher halted the sale of DNA collection kits in Tibet. In light of this historic victory for SFT, HRF sat down with Doma to talk about the significance of this decision.

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Q: In an early 2023 interview, you noted China’s expanding surveillance state and your efforts to raise awareness about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics of biometric repression. How have your efforts progressed since then?

A: After speaking extensively about the notion of political power with Srdja Popovic (Freedom Fellowship mentor and executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies), I realized that the Chinese government was building a new pillar of power: the bioinformatics industry. If it were allowed to grow, this pillar would enable the CCP to have unilateral, totalitarian control over not only Tibetans but also Uyghurs, Chinese, Hong Kongers, and, slowly, those living in Southeast Asia under authoritarian regimes. 

Thermo Fisher, an American company headquartered in the US, sourcing DNA kits for the Chinese government, is the world’s largest bioinformatics company. They are four times larger than the next largest competitor in DNA collection. A partnership with them was a great entry point for the Chinese government to build power in this industry — an industry that lacks policy controls in many countries. The CCP was architecting a whole new form of repression, using Tibetans and Uyghurs as guinea pigs. It was a rare opportunity that we were able to identify this pillar very early on. 

Within a few months, we conducted research and spoke to activists, researchers, and scientists from different regions. We built a coalition of Tibetan groups that would join our mission to stop Thermo Fisher from supplying technologies used for mass DNA collection to police in East Turkistan and profiting from Tibetan oppression. We launched a campaign that started with a petition, which has now received 75,000 signatures of support.

Q: Thermo Fisher recently halted the sale of DNA collection kits in Tibet. What do you think was the company’s turning point?

A: Initially, we thought that since this company supports science and innovation, we were doing them a favor by helping identify this problem. But a few months later, we learned that the Chinese government was allowing Thermo Fisher to build manufacturing plants in China in the coming years. At that point, the company’s most significant sales in the US and China comprised about 10%. We saw a world in which, in five years, 30% of the company’s sales could be in China, or their reliance on China would keep growing. 

So, we continued the campaign despite it being an uphill battle. It was a grassroots effort that required many meetings, protests, direct actions, and collaboration between different groups, which we discussed extensively during my Freedom Fellowship. A successful campaign requires the involvement of all different kinds of stakeholders. We brought in students from universities using Thermo Fisher equipment, as well as scientists, activists, and shareholders. We got in contact with company employees, from the people who were cleaning the beakers to the scientists who were producing this technology. 

Expanding into all of these new coalitions made the company nervous. In fact, last spring, Thermo Fisher shareholders agreed to have a Tibetan representative at their shareholder’s meeting. For a reason unknown to us, the Tibetan representative wasn’t allowed to attend this event. It was a setback in our campaign, but I still felt very confident in our work. We had built a coalition so wide that they were worried their shareholders would be on our side if they knew the reality of the situation. Through coalition-building and direct action, we were able to turn the tide. 

Xi Jinping traveled to San Francisco in November for a meeting with the US business elite. It was his first time stepping foot in a non-authoritarian country outside his sphere of influence since the global pandemic. While Xi was addressing the business community — with Marc Casper (CEO of Thermo Fisher) in the audience — The New York Times was providing live updates, including the protests outside against Xi’s human rights violations. 

The protests became a huge liability for a company that relies on academic and medical institutions and the US market. That became the moment the company probably had to reassess and do a cost-benefit analysis of supplying DNA kits inside Tibet. The protest was part of a larger plan to pressure the company and force them to face the question: Will they supply DNA kits in Tibet in exchange for increased business with China, or will they stay true to scientific values? 

At that time, we successfully collaborated with shareholders and submitted a resolution to Thermo Fisher. They couldn’t bar Tibetan representation from their shareholders meeting this time. Because it is an American company, it would be required to inform all of its shareholders that this resolution was up for a vote, and it would be left up to the shareholders to decide the outcome.

Q: While campaigning, what obstacles did you encounter? How did you navigate and overcome those challenges?

A: The CCP didn’t hold back when we were protesting that night in San Francisco. They unleashed a level of repression on foreign soil that is unimaginable to most other people living in this country. For example, they tried to push a 20-year-old Tibetan student off a five-story building because he held a banner that said “Free Tibet.” And this was outside the hotel, where Casper was dining with Xi. 

There was also a group of 10 or 15 thugs that the CCP paid to stalk activists on their way home from the protests, carrying sticks. When Tibetan activist and organizer Chemi Lhamo was walking with a group of young people — mostly 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds — the thugs followed them to the subway station, dragging metal poles on the ground to intimidate them. It reminded me of 2019 in Hong Kong, when thugs attacked activists at a train station. That could’ve been what happened to those activists in San Francisco. 

It was tough for the student activists, but none backed down; they kept persisting with the campaign. It is heartbreaking that young people have to experience that for a company to realize what is happening. However, the company ultimately agreed to have a meeting with the activists. 

A few weeks later, we were in Washington, D.C., holding a press conference with the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, detailing what happened outside the Hyatt Hotel. A meeting with Thermo Fisher’s vice president was on the same day and scheduled at the same time. Before the meeting, we strategized with our coalition partners. We discussed whether we should negotiate and reduce our terms to convince them.  But our coalition led by young Tibetan voices agreed that there is no compromise when it comes to stealing Tibetan DNA by the millions.

We decided to stay firm on our demands to stop the expansion of China’s mass surveillance of Tibetans. When the meeting ended, we had no idea whether our integrity would have a positive or negative outcome. But a few days later, we received a notification from the company that they would meet the full demands in exchange for withdrawing the resolution. It was a surreal moment.

Q: How did HRF’s Freedom Fellowship contribute to your personal growth and the campaign’s overall success?

A: As an activist, I have completed and delivered many trainings about storytelling in our work. But I often thought about it as a tool for individual instances. Our sessions in public narrative with Ana Babović, a Freedom Fellowship mentor and executive director of the Leading Change Network, were eye-opening. We talked about public narratives being not just a tool for one campaign but a tool for building a vision or crafting a narrative for our larger movement. 

Since then, when planning a campaign, I have often stopped to think about public narratives. I build what I learned in the sessions into my public speaking training, ensuring that the young people I work with access a deeper public narrative to leave overarching, long-term, sustainable change. The sessions shifted my view on using stories and public speaking to build a movement. 

A few months after I started the Fellowship, I became the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet. We are up against a dictatorship that controls more than a billion people and the world’s largest economy by some measures. Our movements take many years and even decades, and we need sustainable foundations and organizations to succeed in the long term. Any activist can understand that activists are not necessarily managers; they may know how to run a campaign but not necessarily an organization. 

That was a big learning curve for me, and it still is. During mentorship meetings with Gayle Karen Young, a Freedom Fellowship mentor and former chief cultural and talent officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, she shared management models and resources, including articles or books that helped her handle situations I was experiencing. Those have helped me create structural and impactful changes in our team. We also used part of my Fellowship microgrant to add a grassroots coordinator to the team, who helped organize the Thermo Fisher campaign and bring activists to an action planning camp. This wouldn’t have been possible without the Freedom Fellowship.

The Freedom Fellowship is a unique, one-year program that gives human rights advocates, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders from challenging political environments the opportunity to increase the impact of their work. Through mentorship and hands-on training sessions, fellows develop critical skills and join a growing community of human rights activists.

If you’re interested in learning more about or donating to the Freedom Fellowship, we encourage you to contact Jhanisse Vaca-Daza at [email protected].