Torch Brings Celebration In the Face Of Mourning

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 31, 2008

XUNLU, China, May 30 -- To the cheers of local farmers, the Olympic torch passed swiftly through Xunlu on Friday as part of a determined campaign to cultivate national pride in the Beijing Games despite the May 12 earthquake that devastated central China and plunged the country into mourning.

The go-go girls who once swayed on flatbeds trucks along the route were gone, and Friday's departure ceremony in nearby Jixi included a minute of silence to honor the estimated 80,000 people killed in the quake. But Xunlu's 2,000 residents, joined by visitors from surrounding fields, nevertheless found something to exult about when the flame, dimly visible behind the windows of a minivan, raced by in a long convoy of police cars, buses and television platforms.

"We have to go on," said Fang Xiaobing, 31, a truck driver who took time out to enjoy the moment. "The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It won't come around again."

The attitude of Fang and his neighbors in these steep, terraced hillsides, in Anhui province 200 miles southwest of Shanghai, suggested broad popular support for Communist Party leaders in their decision to go ahead with the Olympic torch relay despite some complaints that the festivities are inappropriate in the face of so much grief in the earthquake zone.

Xi Jinping, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of Olympic preparations, said in a speech Wednesday that China is determined to overcome the disaster without backing off from its commitment to stage a spectacular Olympic Games. Dismissing the critics, he described the decision to push ahead with the relay as one way to support victims of the quake.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, which works under Xi's guidance, suspended the torch relay during a three-day mourning period for quake victims last week and has ordered communities to tone down festivities associated with its passage. It has also delayed until August plans for the torch to pass through Sichuan province, the hardest-hit earthquake zone.

But the committee rejected suggestions from a number of commentators that it is in poor taste to solicit Chinese to cheer on the Olympic torch while Sichuan is still digging out. "I think the Olympic torch in a situation like this represents hope," said Jeff Ruffolo, a committee spokesman in Beijing.

Li Shijun, a People's Armed Police officer who participated in rescue operations in Sichuan's rugged hills, said listening to his fellow policemen making a similar argument led him to overcome his doubts and accept an offer to carry the torch Wednesday for a leg of its passage through Hefei, the Anhui province capital 150 miles north of here.

"They told me this is also a way to pass along spirit and care, and after thinking it over, I agreed to carry the torch," he told the official New China News Agency.

Similarly, four earthquake rescue workers were enlisted to carry the torch as it was carried through Shanghai a week ago, including the Shanghai fire chief, Chen Fei, and a soldier from the People's Liberation Army, Yu Qian. They also told reporters they wanted the relay to be seen as a gesture of solidarity with earthquake victims.

Many other Chinese disagree, however, prompting a broad debate on the Internet even as the torch continues to wind its way across the country heading for an abbreviated one-day passage through Tibet and finally a triumphal entry into Beijing in August.

One prominent commentator, Huangfu Ping, former deputy editor of People's Daily, the official party newspaper, maintained that it is inappropriate to continue the attempt at festivity while so much sorrow is afflicting Sichuanese. In addition, he said, whatever energy and resources China's 1.3 billion people can muster should be directed toward earthquake relief and reconstruction, not merrymaking and ceremony.

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