25 April 2008 - 8:49AM
Street war victory to the red army
By Noel Towel, Canberra
Canberra was given a taste of red power yesterday as up to 10,000 pro-Chinese demonstrators descended on the capital for the Olympic torch relay.
Armed with red flags and loud voices, the activists, mostly students bused in from Sydney and Melbourne, outnumbered Tibetan protesters and their allies by at least five-to-one.
While the Tibetan side was outnumbered, it enjoyed some star power, with Canadian singer k.d. lang lending her voice to the push for a "free Tibet".
All up, seven people were arrested.
The style and mood of the protests changed throughout the relay route, with hot spots breaking out along the way. One man who tried to block the path of torch-bearer Robert de Castella was quickly whisked away by police.
A few hundred metres from the Australian War Memorial on the so-called "peace mile" brothers John and Nick Price, of North Canberra, claimed they incurred the wrath of an angry pro-China mob.
Nick Price said the trouble started when he and John walked down the middle of Anzac Parade carrying a large "Free Tibet" banner.
"Everyone [was] running with their flags and probably a mob of 100 Chinese surrounded us, pushing us, trying to steal the banner, throwing sticks at us, a lot of abuse," he said. John Price added, "They hit us with sticks on the head and threw rocks at us."
There were more disturbing scenes near the parliamentary triangle with claims the great wall of China supporters was intimidating anyone supporting the Tibetan cause.
Tibetans were not the only ones who turned out to air their grievances against China; Vietnamese, East Turkistanis, Mongolians and Falun Gong devotees were also in voice.
Tibet supporters claimed the Chinese were "rent-a-crowd", university students who had been bussed in from Sydney and Melbourne for the benefit of Chinese TV.
But the Chinese denied it, claiming they came to show their support for their country, and to spread the Olympic spirit.
According to the men and women in red, the human-rights protesters were "liars" who were being paid by foreigners to destroy China's reputation and it was a patriotic duty to defend their nation from the "slurs" of the Tibetans.
The Chinese were well organised with larger groups marshalled by stewards dressed in white and carrying two-way radios, who issued strict orders for the students not to discuss politics with the media.
Canberra-based Chinese Students and Scholars Association representative Zhang Rongan was thinking big yesterday, putting the numbers of Chinese nationals in the capital as high as 20,000 police estimated there were 7500 to 10,000 and denied widespread speculation that the crowds were organised by the Chinese Government.
"We were thinking initially at the most 5000, but it turns out more than 20,000 came," he said.
Mr Zhang said the students paid their own travel costs to Canberra and were not funded by the students' association.
"They just rented the buses to get down the cost," he said.
"They paid their own way. Nobody could afford to pay for so many people."
David Sun and Yoyo, who work for the Chinese state company CATIC in Sydney, said the pro-human rights activists were not telling the truth.
"These people are employed by someone who pays them money to be here," Mr Sun said.
"Many of them are not Tibetans at all. I do not know where they are from. I don't think they should tell lies."
Temay Rigzin, from Canberra's Tibetan community, said the movement in Australia was disappointed by the day's events.
The Tibetans who mustered a crowd of about 2000 believed their message had been drowned out by the behaviour of the Chinese.
Mr Rigzin said he and his fellow protesters had been "mobbed" by pro-Beijing activists.
"A fair few people were pushed around and subjected to mob intimidation but no one was seriously hurt," he said.
"A lot of the time the police were watching the torch and this was going on between stages of the torch relay.
"We felt from the start to have our message heard, but then we felt we got intimidated and overwhelmed and stifled by the Chinese supporters.
"So in that respect, we didn't get the chance to talk about our message as much as we'd like to."
ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said he was proud of the efforts of the 550 police officers on duty yesterday to control the situation and praised his police chief.
"Today was a remarkable success," he said.
"There were some incidents and some very strong expressions of nationalism from the Chinese groups in Australia."
But the Chief Minister said there was none of the violence or disruption which marred the torch relay in London or Paris, and which Canberra had feared.
"It ran its full course, it was peaceful," he said.
"I'm absolutely chuffed."