Torch relay in HK should be dignified

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

With international pressure on Beijing over its human rights record intensifying in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, activists in Hong Kong face a dilemma that grows more delicate by the day.

To join the chorus of criticism of Beijing's handling of the Tibetan riots and its dismal record in human rights protection risks being dragged into the maze of international sports politics. Given the pride of the Chinese people in holding the first Olympics on home soil, any attempt by local activists to use the torch relay as an opportunity to press for better human rights on the mainland will be controversial.

To keep silent might appear politically correct, yet that would negate the Olympic movement's view that China's staging of the Games is a catalyst for positive change.

Moreover, it could be argued that protests during the city's torch relay on May 2 would be hard evidence that the 'one country, two systems' formula is alive and kicking in Hong Kong.

Yet, given the ugly skirmishes we have already seen during some legs of the torch relay, the question of whether or not local human rights activists should stage a protest during the Hong Kong leg is contentious.

Chinese people have reacted with sadness, disappointment and anger to the clashes in London and Paris between police and opponents of China's rule in Tibet .

The rerouting of the torch relay in San Francisco, which deprived thousands of spectators and protesters of the chance to show their feelings, was hardly a demonstration of the Olympic spirit.

Some fear the protests will foster a phobia about China in the west and add strength to the calls for political leaders to boycott Games events.

Others fear that a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment will whip up Chinese nationalism. A surge of nationalistic feeling is already apparent in Chinese internet chat rooms.

There has also been fierce debate on radio phone-in programmes in Hong Kong. Callers have cautioned pro-democracy activists not to 'create trouble and chaos' when the torch relay takes place.

In a column in the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, veteran pro-Beijing figure Ng Hon-mun wrote that Chinese people should make an effort to turn the Games into a success. Critics of Beijing's policies should not express their grievances in such a way as to disrupt the Games, he wrote.

Though Hong Kong has never been known as a hotbed of activities in sup port of independence for Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan, fears of a rise of pro-independence activism ahead of the Games are not unfounded.

Compared with mainland cities, Hong Kong places few restrictions on the entry of foreign visitors, and the city is most tolerant of the expression of dissenting views.

Like it or not, the city is the ideal place for local and international human rights activists to express their views when it hosts the first leg of the torch relay in China following the international portions.

The choice of Hong Kong as the place to stage the first leg of the torch's relay in China is no accident. The city has played an important role in China's peaceful rise since the mainland's economic opening-up began 30 years ago.

Hopes are high that the city's relay leg will embody the Olympic spirit, exemplify national pride and dignity and show the freedom, openness and vibrancy of Hong Kong.

There have been no winners from the mayhem in London and Paris and the disruption in San Francisco.

What happened in those cities is a reminder to the Hong Kong government and to human rights activists of the need to work out a win-win arrangement for May 2 that allows a peaceful and civilised protest and a dignified, joyful and carnival-like torch relay.