Runners carried the Olympic flame through Hong Kong without disruption yesterday, as large groups of flag-waving torch supporters shouted insults at pro-Tibet and human-rights protesters, forcing them to seek refuge in police vans.
The eight-hour relay celebrated the torch’s return to Chinese soil after a 20-nation tour often disrupted by protests. About 3,000 police made sure no one blocked the flame, which is to tour Macau today.
Roads were closed, crowds kept at a distance and at times as many as 16 Chinese torch security guards in blue and white track suits and police on motorcycles alongside the torch bearers.
Tens of thousands of people heeded the government’s call to wear red to express their support for the torch. Police said about 53,000 gathered at the start of the relay in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the relay’s total crowd count hit 101,000.
The relay got off to a nasty start as Chinese flag-waving torch supporters began threatening democracy, pro-Tibet and human-rights protesters along the route.
One large group of torch supporters confronted pro-democracy activists, yelling “running dog,” “traitor” and “get out.”
About 80 police surrounded the protesters and eventually put them in a police van for protection.
Pro-Tibet protester Christina Chan, a university student, was threatened by 30 torch supporters who pushed and shoved a dozen officers protecting her. Several onlookers heckled Chan, shouting, “What kind of Chinese are you?” and “What a shame!”
Chan, who had a Tibet flag, said: “Why can’t we just respect each other and express our views?”
As the crowd became more hostile, police put Chan in a van against her will.
”What right do they have to take me away? I have a right to express my opinion,” she said.
Another lone elderly protester holding a placard urging dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama was circled by shouting bystanders who tore his clothing, called him a traitor and said he was “mentally sick.”
“I was just expressing my opinion. What right do they have to treat me like this? They are uncivilized!” said the man, 72-year-old cab driver Ng Pun-tuk.
Despite the early street-side tensions, the relay went smoothly as the torch was carried by runners, dragon boats and riders on horseback.
Also yesterday, China named the 50-member team charged with carrying the Olympic torch to the summit of Mount Everest, state media reported. But the team members weren’t revealed and it was unclear how many would actually have the honor of being torchbearers.
Meanwhile, envoys of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama will arrive in China today for talks aimed at ending the crisis in Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s office said in a statement yesterday.
This would be the first official contacts between representatives of the Tibetan exiles and the Chinese government since protests turned violent in Tibet in March and sparked a wave of protests against the Beijing Olympics.