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."

Renee Nowytarger/Reuters
Guarding the torch: Australia hosted the Olympic flame in Canberra Thursday, attracting many pro-China and pro-Tibet protesters. Australian authorities kept several demonstrators from getting too close to the torch – as well as most of the Chinese “torch attendants” who have guarded it, often aggressively, elsewhere.

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.

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.

Australia is home to a huge Chinese diaspora, educates tens of thousands of Chinese students each year, and enjoys a booming economy largely due to selling minerals to China.

But the Australians also pride themselves in being forthright on China's flaws, and last month Mr. Rudd, in China as part of a world tour, said he was concerned about the "significant human rights problems in Tibet."

His frank remarks, which angered Beijing, were echoed yesterday by Mr. Stanhope in a speech at the welcoming ceremony of the torch relay. "We hope our friendship can bear a little plain speaking," he said, as smoke from a fire drifted over Aboriginal dancers in face paint and loincloths. "We do not muzzle dissent just because it might embarrass us or embarrass our friends."

Less than an hour later, as the torch passed in front of the federal parliament building, a pair of Tibetan protesters flung themselves on the ground in front of police motorcyclists before being dragged away, handcuffed, and arrested by Australian police.

Overhead, a plane hired by the Australian Greens Party drew the words "Free Tibet" in a cloudless blue sky, while a second aircraft later towed a banner reading "Go Go Beijing Olympics."

As the torch continued on its 10-mile route around Canberra, pushing and shoving broke out between Chinese supporters and pro-Tibet demonstrators.

"They were very aggressive, they grabbed the Tibetan flag I was carrying," said Vivienne Murray, a member of the Australia Tibet Council. "There was a tug of war, and I told them to give it back. I was furious."

Former refugee Lobsang Choegyal, who came to Australia from Tibet three years ago, said he hoped the protests would focus attention on China's brutal security crackdown in Tibet last month. "We will never give up until we get our freedom, no matter how long it takes," he said.

Chinese students yelled "liars" and "shame" at the Tibetans. "They are just ridiculous. Tibet has been part of China for thousands of years," said Oliver Zhang, a student who had traveled hundreds of miles from his college in Queensland.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that seven people were arrested during the relay. Five were pro-China protesters, two were pro-Tibet, police said.

After days of confusion over the exact role of China's torch attendants, just three were allowed to accompany the flame – two on foot and one riding pillion on a police motorbike. One flame escort who tried to run alongside a torch bearer was repeatedly shoved aside by Australian officers.

Despite the protests, organizers deemed the relay "a raging success." The flame heads next to Japan.

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