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Pro-Tibet protester hassled as Hong Kong torch relay begins

Thursday, May 01, 2008

By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press Writer

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HONG KONG — 

The Olympic torch began its relay through Hong Kong Friday before a flag-waving crowd that heckled a pro-Tibetan protester and jostled the police officers protecting her.

Officers eventually put university student Christina Chan into a police van and took her to a police station to protect her from the crowd. Many yelled obscenities and about 30 people pushed and shoved a dozen police surrounding her.

Chan was part of a small group of protesters who held Tibetan flags and signs calling for democracy and human rights in China but were far outnumbered by the pro-China crowd.

Chan said she didn't mind the hostile crowd, but she was upset about the police protection.

"What right do they have to take me away? I have a right to express my opinion," said Chan, 21.

The eight-hour relay through canyons of skyscrapers was expected to be 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.

Everyone was encouraged to wear red to show their support for the torch, and about 3,000 police were deployed to defend the flame.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang kicked off the relay with a speech at a ceremony with Victoria Harbor and the stunning skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island as a backdrop.

"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.

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."

Two hours before the relay began, people started lining up along the streets near the start of the event in the bustling tourist shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.

As a light rain fell, some spectators had big Chinese flags, while others carried protest signs. One woman had an orange sign that said, "Olympic flame for democracy," while a man carried a poster with a tank and the slogan "One world, two dreams."

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!"

The 21-year-old Chan said, "Why can't we just respect each other and express our views."

Hong Kong was a British colony until the city was handed back to China in 1997. 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."

The media are allowed to criticize the leaders, massive street protests have been held demanding greater democracy, and English is still the official language in the courts, where judges wear British-style wigs.

But for special events such as the Olympic torch relay, Hong Kong leans more toward the "one country" part of the formula than the "two systems" part. In the past week, authorities used a blacklist to stop seven pro-Tibet and human rights activists at the airport. After questioning, they were deported.

It's a tactic the authorities have used before for other events, especially those involving high-ranking Chinese leaders. They decline to explain the deportations, saying it's a private matter.

Many thought that actress Mia Farrow might be turned away at the airport when she arrived to give a speech critical of China's ties with Sudan. After reaching the immigration desk to get her passport stamped, officials escorted her away to discuss her plans.

"They wanted some reassurance that we were not here to disrupt the torch relay, which of course we are not," Farrow told reporters.

In a later interview with The Associated Press, Farrow said immigration officials treated her politely and didn't search her luggage. But she said they gave her a statement warning her not to disrupt law and order.

Farrow was scheduled to speak about Sudan at the Foreign Correspondents' Club on Friday. She also planned to light a symbolic torch honoring the victims of fighting in Darfur, a region in Sudan where about 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been forced from their homes amid four years of fighting between local rebels and government-allied militias.

China has been one of Sudan's biggest trading partners, buying oil from the African nation and selling it weapons. Farrow has joined activists in demanding Beijing use its influence to pressure Sudan to stop the violence.

She told the AP she thinks Darfur is an easier issue to lobby China on than Tibet.

"For China, Darfur is what we call the low-hanging fruit. It's easy picking. For the Tibetans, it's more difficult, given China's view of Tibet and the many years that China has held this view," she said, adding that she sympathizes with the Tibetan cause.

Beijing insists that Tibet is historically part of China, but many Tibetans argue the region was virtually independent for centuries.

A separate flame to the one that made its way around the world and reached Hong Kong on Wednesday is being taken up Mount Everest. Chinese officials are being guarded about the climb, and did not offer a report on its progress Thursday.

China's recent crackdown on Tibet inspired several of the torch relay protests in major cities such as Paris, London and San Francisco. Many Chinese were still upset about an incident in Paris in which a pro-Tibet protester tried to grab the torch from a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete.

Much of the anger has been directed at French retailer Carrefour. Tempers flared again Thursday when small groups of people protested at Carrefour stores in Beijing and other cities. No violence was reported and police dispersed the gatherings.

One Beijing protester said, "We want to let all foreigners know that China is very angry today. We have to let Chinese people in China know that we are united."

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