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For Chinese, A Long-Awaited Occasion of Hope and Pride
For many people, the emotional highlight was the entrance of China's 639-member athletic delegation, the country's largest ever and the biggest team of these Games.
"Everyone is crying out, 'Go, China!' I feel the park is going to explode," said Liu Jian, 29, a composer who watched the ceremony in Ditan Park.
Audiences cheered loudly for Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, as Taiwan is referred to at the Olympics. They applauded loudly for allies such as Pakistan and Cuba, for soccer nations Brazil and Spain, and for Iraq. In Ditan Park, there were no discernible boos for the United States or Japan, both targets in the past of virulent expressions of Chinese nationalism.
When a towering Yao Ming entered the stadium at the head of the Chinese delegation bearing a giant Chinese flag, thousands of people sitting on every available inch of pavement rose to their feet screaming and cheering until their faces were red.
"Their voices can't be any louder. Some of these girls have tears in their eyes," Liu said.
As much as government leaders hoped to impress the rest of the world, much of Friday's pomp was directed at a domestic audience.
In a year of challenges, from the Tibet riots and the Sichuan earthquake to fears about rising housing prices and a stock market crash, officials used Confucian elements in the show to help portray a "harmonious society." The catchphrase is meant to evoke President Hu Jintao's legacy but underscores Communist Party concerns that an unhappy public is a threat to its power.
Several intellectuals said the Opening Ceremonies reminded them of the Berlin Olympics in 1936. "The Berlin state wanted to show an Olympics in which all countries take part, that their power is a legal, legitimate one, that they can bring prosperity and splendor to the country," said Chen Yongmiao, a dissident writer and former lawyer.
Unlike other countries, Beijing has been able to close factories by fiat and order motorists to drive on alternate days, in an effort to clear its smoggy skies. Traffic was mostly light Friday as a government-imposed day off kept many people at home.
Security was so strict around the outside perimeter of the Olympic Green that sidewalks below a large outdoor screen were filled not with ordinary citizens but with Olympic volunteers and journalists. Shortly before the ceremony started at 8:08 p.m., a computer mouse could be seen trying to adjust the brightness on the outdoor screen. But then it went blank.
The small crowd didn't seem to mind.
"After China experienced so much trouble this year, China is still very strong and we Chinese want to use our best face to welcome the world," said Liu Jing, 20, a university freshman and volunteer. "For local Chinese, the government just wants to create a happy atmosphere. The Olympics will make you forget a lot of troubles, no matter if you're a high official or an ordinary person."
Correspondent Jill Drew and news researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.