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Cheers outweigh protest at Hong Kong's Olympic torch relay

Proud citizens welcomed the flame back to China Friday, but critics say the autonomous city deferred to Beijing by barring some activists.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2008


After a global tour dogged by controversy, the 2008 Olympics torch was paraded in Hong Kong Friday in its first tour since returning to China, drawing elated crowds that vastly outnumbered a smattering of political demonstrators.

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The smooth run through Hong Kong, an autonomous city that has long offered space for social and political dissent, closes a bumpy chapter in Beijing's pre-Olympics global charm offensive. The torch's remaining legs in China are unlikely to become lightning rods for anti-China activism, particularly over Tibet, as they had in London, Paris, and San Francisco.

In its wake, though, some here question whether local authorities overstepped the mark by refusing entry to several foreign activists who planned to protest during the relay.

Since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has trod a delicate balance between upholding its freedoms, including robust political debate, and keeping on the right side of Beijing.

In recent weeks, as pressure mounted to ensure a trouble-free torch run, other signals have emerged of a possible claw-back in Hong Kong's freedoms. An august law journal abruptly shelved an article on Tibet in its May issue by Paul Harris, a constitutional lawyer. Its author describes the move as self-censorship that reveals a narrowing of debate over issues deemed sensitive by Beijing. He also criticizes authorities for deporting pro-Tibetan activists who have no criminal record.

"There's an increasing atmosphere that people who are law-abiding and are planning to take part in lawful demonstrations that Beijing doesn't like may be refused entry," he says.

Among those in the spotlight is actress Mia Farrow, who has sought to brand this summer's games as the "Genocide Olympics" because of China's role in the Darfur conflict in Sudan. Hong Kong immigration officials held Ms. Farrow for questioning on her arrival Thursday but allowed her to enter, and she spoke out Friday on Darfur.

That was a smart PR move, given her international profile, says David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says that far from surrendering free speech, Hong Kong has continued its role since 1997 as the most cosmopolitan and democratic corner of China, and a refuge for dissenting voices. "You can do almost anything here in terms of political organization. You can say what you want about the government," he says.