Hundreds of Tibetan exiles in Minnesota are joining a massive Midwestern protest to make sure the man who may be China's next leader knows they are still watching.

Sheuphen Sangpo of Bloom- ington was one of at least 300 protesters who gathered in St. Paul in the wee hours Wednesday morning to begin a four-hour road trip to Des Moines to intercept China's Vice President Xi Jinping.

Sangpo said there wasn't enough room on the buses for all the protesters so the organizers had to rent a few vans.

Minnesota is home to the second-largest Tibetan population in the country, and protesters aimed to make their presence known to Xi, who is making a stop in Iowa on his way to California. Xi's U.S. tour started in Washington, D.C., prompting large protests by Tibetans calling for freedom for the land of Tibet, now under Chinese government control. They also called for the return to Tibet of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India.

Sangpo, 21, said he felt compelled to participate in the march through downtown Des Moines streets and the rally outside Iowa's Capitol building because he lives in a country where he can demonstrate against China's leaders.

"Just this year, while Jinping is having dinner with President Obama, Tibetans are being shot in Tibet," he said. "So we, as exiled Tibetans in the free world, we are taking responsibility to speak for them -- to speak for the voiceless Tibetans inside Tibet."

Since January, eight people in Tibet have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule. Sangpo said he has relatives in Aba, an area in Tibet where many of the self-immolations have taken place.

Hoping for 'Tibetan spring'

The deaths have shocked and saddened Tibetan exiles.

"To spark the Arab Spring, there was just one person who self-immolated. I think it will take many more to have the Tibetan spring," said Tsewang Chokden, vice president of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota. He joined the protest in Iowa, which also drew Tibetans from Madison, Wis., and from Chicago.

Xi is expected to become China's next president. China is the top consumer of U.S. agricultural products, and Xi was to attend the first U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium while in Des Moines.

Sangpo arrived in Minnesota in March 2008 -- just before a historic time in Tibet when thousands of Tibetans rose up and demonstrated against the Chinese government.

"We had such a suffering under the Chinese government in Tibet," he said, recalling his life there. "There's no freedom. We don't even have the basic rights in Tibet. That's what brought many Tibetans to the U.S. -- to have the freedom to practice our own identity."

Tenzin Khando of Minneapolis took a day off from her studies at the University of St. Thomas to participate in the protest.

"This is one of those rare moments for us where we have a sense of direct action that needs to be taken because of what's happening. The self-immolations are a call out for help," she said.

By coincidence, Xi's visit to Iowa was happening on a Wednesday -- the same day of the week when Tibetans around the world celebrate their culture by wearing traditional Tibetan clothes, speaking the Tibetan language and cooking Tibetan foods.

Called the "lhakar" movement, it started in Tibet in 2008.

Khando wore a black traditional Tibetan dress, called a "chupa," to the protest. She said others were dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes, too.

No new year's party

In another show of support for their fellow Tibetans in Tibet, the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota recently decided not to celebrate with singing and dancing the upcoming Tibetan New Year.

The holiday, which starts Feb. 22 and lasts several days, usually is marked by cultural performances at the organization's building in St. Paul.

"It's in direct solidarity with the Tibetans in Tibet," said Khando. "We'll be having the usual prayers that take place on Tibetan New Year, but we won't be having any overt celebrations. It will be a very somber event."

She acknowledged that some will be disappointed.

But, Sangpo added, that sadness is trumped by the desire to support Tibetans in Tibet.

"People are suffering in Tibet and it is not the time to celebrate here. It's time to stand in solidarity with them," Sangpo said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488