HONG KONG – Runners carried the Olympic flame through Hong Kong on Friday, as large groups of flag-waving torch supporters shouted insults at pro-Tibet and human rights protesters, forcing them to seek refuge in police vans.
One angry pro-China mob yelled, “Do you think this is Paris?” to a small group of pro-democracy supporters as they peacefully demonstrated near the start of the torch route. It was a reference to the French leg of the relay that was disrupted by protests.
Police had to put another protester holding a Tibetan flag into a police van after she was threatened by 30 torch supporters who pushed and shoved a dozen officers who were protecting her.
Near Hong Kong’s government headquarters, actress Mia Farrow held aloft a separate torch and urged Beijing to help stop the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region. But she didn’t disrupt the Olympic torch relay.
Despite the tensions, the first half of the relay went smoothly on roads soaked by a morning drizzle. No one tried to block the flame as a chain of smiling athletes, movie stars and tycoons jogged around the city amid heavy security.
One of the torch’s stops included the grassy venue where the Olympic equestrian events will be held during the Aug. 8-24 games. After being awarded the Olympics, Beijing said it did not have the proper environment for horses and shifted the event to this city.
Hong Kong’s eight-hour relay over highways, bridges and through canyons of skyscrapers was a big challenge for authorities 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 unrivaled 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 criticize 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 declined to explain the deportations.
Farrow, who was let into Hong Kong, said immigration officials asked her for assurances that she wouldn’t disrupt the torch relay.
During a speech Friday, she called on China to pressure Sudan to put an end to the bloodshed in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died since 2003.
“Beijing is singularly positioned to persuade Khartoum to cease the regime’s assault upon Darfur’s population” given its strong business ties to Sudan, she said.
China has been one of Sudan’s biggest trading partners, buying oil from the African nation and selling it weapons.
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,” Tsang said with the dazzling skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island as a backdrop.
Tsang said that as the torch works its way through China toward 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 the activists’ 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 mainland China because they chanted slogans and hurled insults in Mandarin, not the local Cantonese dialect.
University student Christina Chan 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 Chan, shouting “What kind of Chinese are you?” and “What a shame!”
Chan said: “Why can’t we just respect each other and express our views.”
As the crowd became more hostile, police put 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 21-year-old university student.