Arrival of Olympic Torch in China Shines a Light on Politics, Security

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

BEIJING, March 31 -- When the Communist Party secretary for Beijing stepped off the chartered Airbus A330 -- decorated with a giant flame in honor of its precious cargo, the Olympic torch -- the first person to greet him was China's top security chief, Zhou Yongkang.

The moment symbolized what the 2008 Olympic Games have become -- a sporting event that is as much about politics and security as sport.

When the Olympic flame arrived Monday as part of the worldwide torch relay, authorities were determined to head off protests. Although China might see the Games as an opportunity to herald its arrival on the global stage, human rights activists have made clear they are eager to draw attention to China's abuses. As a result, the ceremony to mark the flame's arrival was at once celebratory and tightly controlled.

Schoolchildren waiting at Beijing Capital International Airport welcomed Liu Qi, the party secretary and chief Olympics organizer, with flowers and a brass band. But the torch, ostensibly a symbol of unity and peace, was immediately placed inside a special van, which traveled in a six-car convoy and along a top-secret route to Tiananmen Square.

In the square, thousands of dancers performed breathtaking acrobatics to a festive drumbeat as balloons were released into a bluish sky and sparkling confetti, fired into the air, fell like crystalline snow. One banner read: "Transcendence. Integration. Equality."

But vast expanses of the square were empty, closed to the public for security reasons, unlike in 2001, when throngs of ecstatic Chinese filled the historic site to celebrate Beijing's winning bid to host the Games.

Many of the 5,000 invited guests, including 220 foreign journalists, arrived two hours early Monday for security checks. Senior citizens dressed in matching red-and-white outfits and drafted onto state-sponsored cheerleading teams walked to the square before sunrise and waited more than five hours for President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders to arrive.

"To host the Olympic Games is a long-cherished dream of the Chinese people," said Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong, the first of several speakers to stress the importance of the torch relay as a symbol of international friendship.

Xi Jinping, China's newly minted vice president and a likely successor to Hu, said the relay would showcase China's commitment to the Games.

"The torch relay will pull together the strength of the whole nation in making every effort to stage a unique and well-done Olympic Games, and promote national development, social progress and people's well-being," he said.

China had hoped the Games would highlight its economic progress and "harmonious society" -- a favorite catchphrase of Hu's -- but deadly riots in the city of Lhasa and unrest in other Tibetan-populated areas have trained an international spotlight on Beijing's response to the crisis, galvanizing protesters.

Thousands of exiled Tibetans and other pro-Tibet activists around the world protested the arrival in Beijing of the torch with a "Global Day of Action," holding demonstrations, signature drives and candlelight vigils to pressure China and the International Olympic Committee to withdraw Tibet from the relay route. China has so far refused to change the route.

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