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Pro-Beijing crowds drown out torch protesters

More than 10,000 Chinese Australians staged the biggest pro-Beijing rally of the protest-marred Olympic torch relay on Thursday, bringing a sea of red Chinese flags and drowning out Tibetan demonstrators.
Image: Protesters wave flags
Pro-China protesters wave flags as a plane writes the words "Free Tibet" overhead during the Olympic torch relay in Canberra on Thursday.Tim Wimborne / Reuters
/ Source: news services

More than 10,000 Chinese Australians staged the biggest pro-Beijing rally of the protest-marred Olympic torch relay on Thursday, bringing a sea of red Chinese flags and drowning out Tibetan demonstrators.

Protests and tight security have followed the Olympic torch around the world over the past month, putting China's domestic and foreign polices under the spotlight ahead of the Games in August.

Anti-Chinese protests during the previous relay legs have sparked a wave of patriotism amongst Chinese at home and abroad, and on Thursday thousands of Chinese chanting "One China" packed the start and finish of the torch relay in the Australian capital.

Police made seven arrests, but for the most part the event was peaceful.

The event began without major incident as a half-dozen officers — in jogging pants, T-shirts and baseball caps — formed a loose cordon around the runner. Overhead, an airplane sky writer wrote the words “Free Tibet” in white letters.

Security had been boosted with officials saying the expense doubled in recent weeks to $1.9 million for the three-hour event.

'Magnificent day'
A momentary scare came an hour into the relay when a man leaped out from the crowd and sat cross-legged about 35 feet in front of the runner. Police quickly hauled him away and the runner didn’t stop.

"This is a magnificent day for us today to show that Australia can have a peaceful rally. Watching overseas protests, I felt shamed that they can behave like that," Wellington Lee, from the Chinese Association of Victoria state, told Reuters.

Chinese lined the 10-mile relay route six-deep, and hundreds of cars drove around Canberra carrying Chinese flags.

"It was highly organized," free-Tibet supporter and Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown told Reuters. "Australians will feel a little bit uncomfortable by the fact that communist China came to town and just showed it can buy anything."

China denied the charge.

"I don't know how this question is relevant," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing. "If someone is interested in it, then has he asked those people who disrupt and sabotage the torch if there are any organizers and instigators behind them? I think that question is more newsworthy."

Patriotic fervor
Jiang also defended the outpouring of patriotic fervor among Chinese as a legitimate response to "provocation".

Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of being behind March 14 riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and unrest that followed in other ethnic Tibetan areas, as part of a bid for Tibetan independence and to ruin the Olympics.

On Saturday, the torch will be run through Nagano, Japan, where officials have changed the route due to security concerns and complaints from locals.

The route for the torch's visit to Ho Chi Minh City on April 29 still has not been revealed.

Unlike London, Paris or San Francisco, where torch bearers were jostled by anti-Beijing protesters as they ran, in Canberra a heavy police presence, steel barricades and the city's wide boulevards ensured runners were unobstructed.

Scuffles broke out between Tibetan protesters and China supporters, who included Australian Chinese and Chinese students in Australia, before the start of the relay and as a few Tibetan protesters tried to block the runners.

Two pro-Tibet women charged the torch convoy as it neared parliament house and were dragged away by police, as one yelled: "They're torturing my country."

Star among protesters
Police were at times forced to escort Tibetan protesters through a sea of Chinese yelling "Liar, Liar, Liar".

Tibet protesters included Canadian singer K.D. Lang, a Buddhist who interrupted her Australian tour to travel to Canberra. "Tibet is a global heritage. It's something we want to protect, it's something that enriches the entire universe," she said.

Officials claimed a victory because it largely avoided the chaotic protest scenes that marred the portions held in Europe and the United States.

“We obviously feared the worst,” local government spokesman Jeremy Lasek said. “We feel right now relieved but elated — we think we’ve pulled it off.”