Torch protest successful despite intimidation

April 26, 2008

On April 24, as day broke over Canberra, red flags with yellow stars moved in columns throughout the city, held in the hands of marchers, fluttering from car aerials and hanging in the windows of hundreds of buses.

Steel fences lined the roads, and smoke and the smell of gunpowder from fireworks floated over Lake Burley Griffin: the Olympic torch relay had brought a little taste of Beijing to the capital.

More than 10,000 China supporters had arrived in Canberra to greet the torch and support the Olympic Games, but primarily they were there to "defend their homeland" against what they described as "lies of the Tibetans". Throughout the day it was not the Olympic slogan of "one dream" chanted by the China supporters — predominantly students —, but "one China forever".

This passion was matched by more than 1000 supporters of human rights and self-determination for Tibet and East Turkistan. When the two crowds met at Reconciliation Place, the atmosphere was far from conciliatory. Flags and banners were wrested from the hands of Tibet supporters, and a Chinese flag was set alight.

The Tibetan demonstration had two central demands. Firstly, that China negotiate with the Dalai Lama, and secondly, that the Olympic torch not go through Tibet on its journey to Beijing — an action that solidarity activists say will incite further unrest and deepen the crisis.

The protests shifted to Parliament House, where the passionate crowd heard from a number of speakers, including the Greens' Bob Brown and Canadian singer k.d. lang, who condemned the persecution of Uighur Muslims in East Turkistan.

The protesters came from a wide variety of backgrounds: Tibet solidarity groups, Burma activists, the East Turkistan Association, Amnesty International, GetUp!, Resistance and the Socialist Alliance all lent their support. "Free Tibet" was written across the sky by a small plane.

Pro-Tibet protest organisers declared the day a success. Simon Bradshaw from the Australia Tibet Council said it was "an exemplary show of non-violence from the Tibetan community and its supporters in spite of tremendous antagonism".

The Chinese Embassy enthusiastically supported the China contingents, paying "most of the expenses [and providing] virtually all of the organisation, down to transport, accommodation, strategies, tactics, marshals, face markings and issues of Chinese flags", according to Jack Waterford in the April 25 Canberra Times.

The embassy's private urging of Chinese students to engage in "patriotic activity" to counter Free Tibet campaigners — while publicly calling on Tibetans to keep politics out of the event — is hard to view as anything but hypocrisy.

However, despite the actions of the embassy, the China supporters were not just a "rent-a-crowd". Many were angered at what they perceived was unjustified criticism of China and media bias over the events in their Tibet by the West.

This anger was compounded by disgust at criticism of China's human rights record by a country with its own record tarnished by its treatment of Indian doctor Dr Mohamed Haneef and of its Indigenous people, as well as by its support for the torture camp at Guantanamo Bay. One pro-China protester summed up the sentiment: "You have no right to lecture us about what we do in our own country when you do not respect human rights in your own."

Socialist Alliance activist Graham Mathews, who traveled down from Sydney to join the "Free Tibet" action, told Green Left Weekly that "regardless of the hypocrisy of governments like Australia's criticising China, the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination. We can not pick and chose who deserves justice and who doesn't because of the manoeuvres of the powerful. Socialists support all struggles for social justice, including the democratic rights of the Tibetan people to determine their future."

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