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Torch Lights a Patriotic Spark

May 7, 2008

Olympic Symbol Renews Nationalist Fervor, Pride in Games
By Edward Cody
The Washington Post Foreign Service
May 5, 2008; A11

SANYA, China, May 4 -- After a stormy passage abroad, the Olympic torch began a three-month relay through the major cities of China proper Sunday in a protest-free celebration of patriotism and merrymaking.

The first leg of the home-country relay, in Hainan province just off the mainland's southern rim, provided the Chinese people and their rulers with the televised images of harmony and Olympic joy that they so bitterly missed over the past month, during disrupted runs through London, Paris, San Francisco and other stops.

In a scene that set the tone, one middle-aged torch bearer, his ballooning stomach stretching against a tight running outfit, jumped for joy as the flame was passed to his torch. He set out with a wide smile to run his section of the all-day relay through Sanya and on to neighboring cities in Hainan.

The ritual jogging, with the torch passed from hand to hand under a warm sun, launched what China's leaders hope will be a return to the Olympic amity that to a large extent was lost as protesters abroad decried China's recent actions in Tibet and Chinese authorities responded by questioning their goodwill. The relay will move to the major manufacturing centers of Guangzhou and Shenzhen this week, then is scheduled to wind its way back to Beijing in time for a spectacular opening ceremony Aug. 8.

The celebrations here dramatized anew how the Beijing Games have become infused with defensive Chinese nationalism at a time when the ruling Communist Party's policies are under attack on several fronts. The patriotic sentiment has clouded earlier expectations that the Games could demonstrate not only China's rising status but also its new openness to the world.

"Go, China! Go, China!" thousands of spectators chanted as more than 200 runners, including Jackie Chan and other entertainment and sports figures, carried the flame 20 miles along this resort city's seaside avenues.

Meanwhile, loudspeakers blared a pop-tune version of a traditional patriotic song, "I Am Chinese," and people of all ages waved Chinese flags and cheered when the runners came into view. Young celebrants wore stickers of the Chinese flag on their cheeks. Others wore shirts with slogans emphasizing that Tibet is part of China or with revolutionary sayings from the days of Mao Zedong.

The explosion of national pride and enthusiasm was encouraged by the government's mobilization of students and workers, which included time off from classrooms and offices on what normally would have been a workday to make up for last week's May Day holiday. Thousands of schoolchildren in their uniforms were bused in from around Sanya to line the route. Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Lenova and Samsung, passed out flags and T-shirts with their logos alongside the Olympic rings and China's six stars.

Underlining the government role, Jiang Zelin, the Sanya party secretary, took advantage of a relay-departure speech to plug President Hu Jintao's pet policy, "the scientific development concept." It was not clear how his exhortation fit in with the torch relay, but those in attendance listened patiently.

Security was tight, with uniformed and plainclothes police lining the streets and pushing back spectators who leaned in toward the torch runners. The runners were flanked left and right by a hedgerow of jogging security agents in blue baseball caps, who at times held hands to create a barrier between the crowds and the runners.

People's Armed Police cadets serving as Olympic torch guards, and wearing their trademark blue and white tracksuits, jogged along as well. Unlike in Australia and Japan, where they were restricted by local authorities fearful that their strong-arm tactics would provoke resentment, several guards took charge of the handovers and made sure the pace was right. A minibus with two dozen more followed along in the torch convoy.

Chinese along the route seemed to take the security measures for granted, including being barred from the formal departure ceremony on a man-made island off Sanya. When a security agent ordered a youth down from his vantage point in a tree and challenged him to identify his school, he quietly complied.

Beneath the government organization, however, there seemed to be a sincere desire to display support for China's role as Olympic host. Before the crisis over Tibet and the bitterness over protests abroad, China's 1.3 billion people seemed unusually united in joy at the idea of seeing the Olympics in Beijing. The shouting and cheering Sunday suggested that, for many people at least, that joy remains, despite continuing official rancor and protesters' plans to pursue their disruptions.

"No classes today," said Yan Mei, 20, a language student at Sanya Vocational School. "We all came to cheer on the flame. We want to support the Olympics."

Wang Tong, 13, and Xu Degong, 12, were among several dozen pupils from Hongsha Elementary School brought in by bus to cheer on the relay as it passed. All wore their blue and white uniforms embellished with red kerchiefs identifying them as members of the Communist Party's Pioneers youth group.

"We came here for the Olympics," Xu shouted, trying to make himself heard over cheering classmates. "We came to cheer for the Olympics."
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