International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Hong Kong greets the torch
Thursday, May 1, 2008

HONG KONG: Hopes that China would not rise to the bait of politically motivated Olympics protests have come to nothing - at least to judge by this supposedly autonomous city.

The Olympic torch arrival is being marked by feverish efforts to raise patriotic zeal, with a massively publicized torch relay on May 2 and bans on the entry of several foreign critics of China. Both run contrary to the territory's liberal and internationalist traditions. So much too for the protestations by Beijing - and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge - that sports should not be mixed with politics.

The Hong Kong government's hand can be seen in the membership of the Committee for Welcoming the Torch, which includes the heads of several major quasi-governmental entities, a member of the government's policy-making Executive Council as well as assorted business and professional figures.

Not content with cheering the torch and the Olympic spirit, the committee has urged Hong Kong people to dress in red on the day, or wear one of two million special red stickers being prepared, as a sign of patriotic identification with the government.

It urged schools and employers to support the effort, a move seen by critics as a way of separating the "patriotic" from the "unpatriotic." The local authorities also did their bit for patriotic politics by appointing various pro-administration politicians, as well as property tycoons and their employees to take part in the torch relay. Sports people were conspicuous by their minority status in the relay list.

Seemingly unaware of the irony, the Torch Welcoming Committee spokesman, Jack So, who is the head of the government-funded Trade Development Council, was quoted as saying, "We are only concerned about sports, peace and harmony. We don't want to talk about politics."

Meanwhile So's council, which is supposed to help all business in Hong Kong - Chinese or not - has remained silent on a crucial issue facing thousands of foreign businessmen based in Hong Kong: the pre-Olympic refusal of Beijing to issue multiple reentry visas. This issue is of major concern to the foreign chambers of commerce whose members must cross the border frequently to meet suppliers and visit factories.

Hong Kong's liberal reputation has also been undermined by refusal to allow the entry of a group of human-rights activists headed by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, who was planning to join the small group of local activists eager to use the occasion to wave the Tibetan flag.

No such ban appears set for actress Mia Farrow, due to speak on Darfur, though there are fears that "patriotic" demonstrators could be disruptive. But in another example of politically inspired patriotism trumping liberalism, the local Law Society journal has declined to publish an article setting out a legal case for Tibetan independence.

It is clear that Olympics-related anti-China protests have stirred up nationalism throughout China, including among many who are otherwise critical of the government. Protesters have often failed to distinguish between criticism of the government and attacks on China's pride in hosting what they hope will be the biggest and best Olympics.

As events in Hong Kong are now demonstrating, that can be counter-productive and make it easier for the government to wrap itself in the flag of patriotism. But it is equally clear that governments in Hong Kong and Beijing have been as determined as the demonstrators to use the games for political ends.

Adding to it in Hong Kong's case is the fact that the city is spending a huge sums to host the equestrian events, which could not be held on the mainland for quarantine reasons.

These events have underlined the exclusionary character of Hong Kong's Olympic selection process and the nationalist, patriotic agenda which the games represent.

By excluding anyone not holding Chinese nationality - and there are tens of thousands of locally born non-Chinese residents, mostly of south and southeast Asian ancestry - some of the best local equestrians as well as other athletes are unable to compete for Hong Kong even though it has separate Olympics participation from China.

The Olympics should be open to those who meet residence qualifications, as is generally the case with most other sports and with other dependent territories with teams at the Olympics.

But officials seem to fear they would compete for the territory of Hong Kong, and not for the red flag or Han ethnic pride.