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Olympic torch security row stresses Australian-Chinese ties

Thursday's tour in Canberra saw some fights and a dispute over China's tough "torch attendants."

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2008

Canberra, Australia

Australia's increasingly close ties with China came under strain Thursday as authorities sought to contain the protesters – and Beijing's aggressive "torch attendants" – during the Australian leg of the Olympic torch relay.Scuffles broke out between Tibetans and Chinese as the torch was carried through the streets of the capital, Canberra. Rowdy anti-China demonstrations in Europe and the United States earlier this month have been followed by several calmer stops.

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But here, hundreds of Tibetans carrying placards reading "Flame of Shame" and "Don't Torch Tibet" exchanged angry words with an estimated 10,000 Chinese, many of them students who had been bussed in, reportedly with the involvement of the Chinese Embassy.

Australian and Chinese officials had a public falling out on Wednesday over the role of the now infamous blue tracksuited "torch attendants" who were labeled "thugs" for their rough behavior during the London leg of the torch relay.

At a press conference on the eve of the relay, Chinese spokesman Qu Yingpu said the attendants could take matters into their own hands if a torchbearer was threatened, "using their bodies to form a kind of defense."

But a furious Jon Stanhope, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra forms the bulk, said the Chinese officials had absolutely no security role to play, telling Australian police to "read the riot act" to the Chinese attendants if they tried to intervene.

The row encapsulated Australia's difficult balancing act in managing the event. On the one hand there is tremendous sympathy for the Tibetan cause among Australians, as well as a determination to uphold people's right to free speech.

On the other, the government did not want to antagonize China, which last year eclipsed Japan as Australia's biggest trading partner, thanks to its voracious appetite for Australian coal, iron ore, and other raw materials.

Australia's ties with China have gone from strength to strength in the past decade. They are likely to continue to grow under newly elected prime minister and former diplomat Kevin Rudd, the first Western leader to speak fluent Mandarin.