BEIJING (AP) – The elaborate ceremony to rekindle the Olympic torch went off without a hitch yesterday in closely guarded Tiananmen Square – with hundreds of cheering women in brightly colored T-shirts, flower-toting children and confetti.
There were no protests in Beijing, although some are expected during the 85,000-mile world tour.
The Olympic torch left on a chartered plane to Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tuesday morning, according to Beijing organizers.
Demonstrations are expected as the torch goes to London, Paris and San Francisco. Even stops in Kazakhstan and then Turkey later this week could be flash points for China’s Muslim Uighur minority living abroad.
President Hu Jintao presided at the elaborate ceremony in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the flame – carried from Greece in a lantern aboard an Air China flight – reignited the Olympic torch.
The ceremony, filled with political jargon, multicolored balloons and confetti, was broadcast on state television 130 days before the games open. It was meant to display a confident China ready to use the Olympics to show off its growing economic and political clout. About 5,000 people attended the invitation-only event. Hundreds of seats were vacant, save for dozens of plainclothes security agents in black jackets.
Liu Qi, head of the Beijing organizing committee, in his speech repeated that the games will be “green Olympics, high-tech Olympics and the people’s Olympics.”
There were few ordinary Chinese at the ceremony, however. Roads around the square were closed, nearby subway stations were shuttered, and police barricades kept back thousands of people about a half-mile from the tiny flame.
“The government takes this very seriously,” said a man calling himself An Ping who was in the crowd behind the cordon. “They have invested a lot of money in the Olympics, so they want it to go smoothly. It (security) is good because if there is a problem, it will affect the ceremony.”
A nearby woman who gave only her family name, Zhao, added: “There are lots of people from outside Beijing. It would be chaos if we didn’t have this much security.”
The stretch of Chang’an Boulevard – Beijing’s 12-lane main thoroughfare – was closed in front of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, as were nearby streets.
Liu, who also heads Beijing’s Communist Party, was embarrassed last week in Greece when a protester ran up behind him while he was giving a speech, waving a black flag with handcuffs substituting for the Olympic rings.
Chinese state TV’s live broadcast of Monday’s ceremony was delayed by about a minute, apparently to ensure the feed could be cut in case of a disruption. Beijing organizers are balking at allowing any live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics.
The 85,000-mile torch relay is a record, meant to showcase China’s power abroad and it sovereignty over far-flung areas. But it also offers a stage for protesters from Tibet to Darfur to Muslims in far western China.
The trip to Kazakhstan starts a monthlong, 21-city global journey. It returns May 4 to mainland China and continues through more than 100 cites before returning Aug. 6 to Beijing, wrapping up its journey.
Stops in Almaty, Istanbul, Turkey, and St. Petersburg, Russia, aren’t expected to produce trouble, though the first two legs are home to large Muslim populations who may identify with China’s Muslim Uighur minority.
Large protests are expected at the next three stops – London, Paris and San Francisco – with Tibetan and rights groups promising demonstrations.
A plan to take the flame to the summit of Mount Everest is also a sensitive point. Everest straddles Nepal and Tibet.
The relay has focused attention on recent unrest in Tibet, the worst in the Chinese-controlled region since 1989. China has blamed the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, and his supporters for inciting peaceful protests that began March 10. The marches erupted into violence four days later.