Beijing's slogan for the Summer Olympics, "One World, One Dream," took a bit of a hit on Saturday night at Sha Tin race course, which has been converted into the Olympic equestrian venue.
Political activism has been a thorny issue for the Chinese government for several months. The protests during the torch relay in Paris and London shocked Olympic organizers in Beijing as well as Chinese sponsors like a deer hypnotized by car headlights.
To keep disruptions in Beijing during the Olympic Games to an absolute minimum, the Chinese government set up official protest zones in parks miles from the actual Olympic venues. Hong Kong is no beacon of democracy but protesters have been given greater leeway here.
The official protest zone at Sha Tin is just 300 meters away from the entrance to the Olympic venue. It was around a tight corner and not highly visible, true, but it was a one-minute walk from the drop-off point for the free bus shuttles ferrying visitors to the venue.
When the protesters saw a group of camera-toting foreigners, including myself, heading their way, they jumped into high gear. Through a megaphone, they repeated in English, Cantonese and Mandarin: "We want democracy! We want human rights! Democracy in China now!" (Cantonese is the Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong, while mainland Chinese speak Mandarin.) There were plenty of police around but the atmosphere wasn't hostile.
Inside the Olympic venue, and therefore outside the protest zone, the police were not quite so relaxed. Shortly after the event started, while the Chinese athlete Alex Hua Tian was in the ring, the police pounced on Leung Kwok-hung, an activist well-known in Hong Kong as "Long Hair."
According to press reports on Sunday, he and another activist were attempting to unfurl a banner they smuggled into the venue in Long Hair's underwear that said, "Human rights, freedom for China, no dictatorship."
Few Hong Kong Chinese spectators showed interest in the political events happening inside or outside the race course. Nor were they all that interested in dressage. There were plenty of empty seats in the stadium, but outside there were enormous lines for three things:
- To buy a cold can of Coke to alleviate the stifling heat
- To get a photo taken with a Fuwa, one of the five mascots of the 2008 Olympic Games
- To enter the store selling Olympic collectibles. (There was no doubt another long line to actually buy things once people managed to get inside the store.)
The entertainment during breaks to rake the dressage ring was a unique mixture of Hong Kong's western and Chinese heritage. During the first break, the crowd was treated to a rousing performance by a marching band and then by -- get this -- the Hong Kong Police Force Pipe Band. The bagpipes are a remnant of the days when Hong Kong was controlled by Scottish traders with names like Hutchison, Swire and Jardine. Called taipans, these men put Hong Kong and its deep water port on the map in the 19th century.
During the second break, a group of young men and women presented a range of Chinese martial arts such as tai chi in an astounding performance.
The local organizers clearly have done their best to make the equestrian events as fun as possible, considering the necessary security requirements, Hong Kong's distance from Beijing and the extreme heat.
But there's no question Beijing has largely ignored Hong Kong's role in the games, which represents a loss of face for the mainland. The equestrian events were originally planned to take place in Beijing, but the International Olympic Committee vets found equine diseases in China and didn't approve its substandard quarantine procedures. It was impossible to hold the equestrian events in Beijing, because the horses wouldn't be allowed back into their home countries afterward.
Instead of using the equestrian events in Hong Kong as a chance to show off the success of China's "one country, two systems" setup, Beijing has done little to include Hong Kong in the Olympic hoopla. What a wasted opportunity.
For more Olympic blogging, click here