Runners carried the Olympic flame through Hong Kong in a steady drizzle today, as large groups of flag-waving supporters shouted insults at pro-Tibet and human rights protesters, forcing them to seek refuge in police vans.
One angry patriotic mob harassed a small group of pro-democracy supporters, yelling at them, “Do you think this is Paris?”, in a reference to the French leg of the relay that was disrupted by protests.
Another protester holding a Tibetan flag was carried into a police van after she was threatened by 30 torch supporters who pushed and shoved a dozen officers protecting her.
Despite the street side tensions, the early stage of the relay went smoothly on the rain-soaked roads. No one tried to block the flame as a chain of smiling athletes, movie stars and tycoons jogged around the city amid heavy security.
Hong Kong’s eight-hour relay over highways, bridges and through canyons of skyscrapers was a big challenge for the leaders and police in the Chinese territory. The torch was finally back on Chinese soil, and Beijing wanted no repeat of the protests and chaos that disrupted the flame during its 20-nation overseas tour.
But trouble was likely in Hong Kong, which enjoys civil liberties unrivalled in the rest of China. Hong Kong was a British colony until the city was handed back to China 11 years ago. Although Beijing makes all the big political decisions, Hong Kong was promised a wide degree of autonomy under a formula called “one country, two systems”.
Street protests are routine in Hong Kong, and the media frequently criticise leaders, though press critics say self-censorship is common.
In the past week, authorities used a blacklist to stop seven pro-Tibet and human rights activists at the airport. They were questioned and deported, in a tactic authorities typically use ahead of events involving high-ranking Chinese leaders. They decline to explain the deportations.
But actress Mia Farrow was allowed into Hong Kong yesterday to give a speech today critical of China’s cosy ties with Sudan. Farrow said immigration officials asked her for assurances that she would not disrupt the torch relay and she agreed.
Before the relay began, Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang gave a speech that highlighted the city’s freedoms.
“We are a world in a city, where different people with different beliefs and different views have thrived in a spirit of diversity, tolerance and respect,” he said.
Tsang said that as the torch worked its way through China towards Beijing in the next three months, “it will continue to blaze a trail, a trail of unity and peace for all people and all nations”.
The majority of torch spectators supported the flame and did not cause trouble.
A small group carried protest signs that said: “Olympic flame for democracy” and: “Build a democratic China.”
Another group of seven pro-democracy activists were overwhelmed by torch supporters, who drowned out their slogans with insults like “running dog”, “traitor” and “get out!” The activists, holding a banner that said, “Return power to the people”, were surrounded by 80 police and eventually ducked into a police vehicle for protection.
Many torch supporters were apparently from the mainland because they chanted slogans and hurled insults in Mandarin, not the local Cantonese dialect.
University student Christina Chan, 21, wrapped the Tibetan snow lion flag around her body and later began waving it. China’s recent crackdown on Tibet has inspired many of the protests against the torch overseas.
Several onlookers heckled her, shouting “What kind of Chinese are you?” and “What a shame!”
Ms Chan said, “Why can’t we just respect each other and express our views?”
As the crowd became more hostile, police put Ms Chan in a police van against her will.
“What right do they have to take me away? I have a right to express my opinion,” said the university student.