Wednesday, 30 April 2008 19:00 Patrick Goodenough Editorial Dept - Asia

  Back on Chinese soil after a troubled trip around the world, the Olympic torch relay's journey through Hong Kong Friday will be a test of Beijing's willingness to allow free expression in the semi-autonomous territory.

The torch's Hong Kong visit kicks off a three-month trip through China, including a controversial planned stop in Tibet in June, before the Olympic Games open in Beijing in August.

China has responded with outrage to public protests -- many relating to repression in Tibet -- that have dogged the six-week-long international leg of the relay, and officials want to keep the Hong Kong visit incident-free. 

  The former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that promised the enclave a measure of autonomy. Although political rights have been limited over the years since, Hong Kong authorities have allowed public demonstrations against government policies on a scale that would never be permitted elsewhere in China.

But with the sensitivities over the Olympics and Tibet, the government appears to be taking no chances.

This week, at least three high-profile Tibet activists were detained on entry into Hong Kong and deported.

Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) said two of its members, both Canadian citizens, had been questioned for three hours at Hong Kong International Airport before being deported. A press officer for the Free Tibet Campaign was also stopped and deported.

SFT said the campaigners had planned a press conference to coincide with the torch relay on Friday, focusing on calls for the International Olympic Committee to cancel the Tibet leg of the torch relay.

The group says it fears that the torch visit will spark "further protests and another violent crackdown by Chinese authorities in Tibet."

At the weekend, the Hong Kong government's Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong was quoted by local media as saying the authorities would not allow "Tibetan separatists" into Hong Kong.

Tibet isn't the only focus of protestors taking advantage of China's hosting of the Olympics. A Chinese writer living in Sweden and three Danes were also denied entry to Hong Kong in recent days, after being invited to take part in a two-day seminar on freedom of expression seminar, timed to coincide with the torch visit and World Press Freedom Day on Saturday.

"We have come to Hong Kong to call upon China to fulfill its guarantee to open media access on the mainland, and now we must be certain to include freedom of expression in Hong Kong," said Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, vice-president of International PEN, an association of writers involved in organizing the seminar.

Hollywood actress and human rights activist Mia Farrow was scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong on Thursday to deliver a speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club Friday entitled "Darfur and the Olympics."

A pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, Emily Lau, expressed concern in a radio interview earlier that Farrow may also be deported, a move she said would turn Hong Kong into "an international laughing stock."

Farrow and others campaigning for an end to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur want China, a key economic partner and arms supplier to the Sudanese government, to exert more pressure on Khartoum to help bring about a resolution.

The U.N. estimates that as many 300,000 people have died in Darfur since fighting erupted there in 2003 between rebel groups and government-backed militias.

Chinese officials have said repeatedly in recent months that there is no link between Darfur and its hosting of the Olympics.

Beijing Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday that "Farrow should deepen her knowledge and understanding of China's active and constructive role in handling the Darfur issue."

China had provided aid, sent peacekeepers and appointed a special envoy who was in contact with the various parties concerned in the conflict, she said.

"The Darfur issue was not brought about by China, but China has played a great active role in promoting the proper resolution of the issue."

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