HONG KONG, CHINA - 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.
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.
Among those voices are followers of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned elsewhere in China as a deviant cult. Labor activists trying to aid workers across the border in Guangdong's export factories that feed American stores also use Hong Kong as a base of operations.
On Friday, though, it was China's policies in restless Tibet that proved the most inflammatory target for protest. As waiting crowds in red T-shirts and waving Chinese flags began to swell along a section of the torch route, Virginia Yue, an IT professional, stood holding a Tibetan flag in a solo protest. Others carried slogans criticizing China's human rights record and calling for direct elections in Hong Kong.
Ms. Yue said she didn't want to confront the jubilant pro-Olympics crowd but to raise an "uncomfortable issue" for China. "I'm not here to outnumber or out-shout them. I'm here to be peaceful," she said.
But the arrival of several more protesters, including a student who draped a Tibetan flag around her and shouted slogans, jolted the crowd. Dozens of young men began chanting abuse and confronting the group. Police broke up scuffles before bundling the protesters into a van, saying it was for their own protection. They were later released without charge.
Shortly after, an Olympics relay runner flanked by Chinese men in sky-blue tracksuits and police motorbikes passed the spot, drawing huge cheers as onlookers held camera-phones aloft. Many banged inflatable plastic tubes handed out by Olympics brand-name sponsors and chanted "Go China!"
Watching the scene was Sissy Wong, a student from Shenzhen, a border city in China. "I'm very proud to be Chinese," she said. Asked about the pro-Tibetan protesters, she said the Olympics should be free from politics and emphasized her pride in China as the host (Hong Kong is hosting the equestrian events).
Other spectators were more blunt. "Everyone should be supporting China in holding the Olympics ... [the protesters] know nothing about human rights," says Kevin Ye, sporting a Chinese flag sticker on his face.
Across the city at another vantage point along the torch's day-long crawl, Joseph Kun, a lawyer, offers a different view. He insists that Hong Kong needs to safeguard its freedoms of speech and assembly and not block peaceful protest when the Olympics spotlight is on.
"We're supposed to be 'one country, two systems,' " he says, referring to the formula agreed by Chinese rulers before the 1997 handover. "That means we manage our own autonomy. We should show the world we're different from the Communist regime."