President Hu Jintao of China waved the Olympic torch at a ceremony in Tiananmen Square on Monday, smiling broadly as balloons, streamers and confetti rose into a mostly blue sky.
Then came the uncertain part. Mr. Hu sent the torch on a 130-day journey around the globe where protests and controversy likely await. First stop on what Beijing is calling a “Journey of Harmony” will be Lhasa, the Tibetan capital still simmering from violent anti-government protests.
“I now declare the launch of the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games,” Mr. Hu said in his only line in a tightly scripted celebration that was broadcast across China on state television. The Communist Party leader then handed the torch to China’s star hurdler, Liu Xiang, who raced off to culminate the ceremony.
Earlier on Monday morning, the Olympic flame arrived in Beijing from Athens onboard a specially outfitted Air China jetliner decorated with golden flames. This week, the Olympic flame is actually being split into two torches. One will be flown on Tuesday to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to begin an international relay that will cover five continents, including one stop in the United States in San Francisco.
The other torch is being flown to Lhasa and then taken to a base camp below Mount Everest. There, the flame is expected to be stored in a special lantern until May, when a team of climbers — escorted by two specially trained cameramen for Chinese state television — will attempt to carry the burning torch to the summit of the world’s highest mountain and then back down. By then, the international relay should be completed and the two torches will be reunited into one in Lhasa to begin a tour through the Chinese mainland that concludes in Beijing at the opening of the Games on Aug. 8.
The ascent of Mount Everest and the tour through Tibet had infuriated pro-Tibet advocates even before violent protests erupted in Lhasa on March 14 and subsequently spread elsewhere in western China. But those protests have further galvanized international Pro-Tibet advocacy groups, who are planning protests in different cities on the route of the international relay and, possibly, inside China.
“Tibetans and people of conscience worldwide are voicing their opposition to China’s global torch relay, which the Chinese government is using as a political tool to gain global acceptance and legitimize its occupation of Tibet,” said Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, in a press release.
Protesters already interrupted the March 24 flame-lighting ceremony in Athens. On Monday, security and secrecy in Beijing was high. Foreign journalists were originally told the ceremony would begin at noon only to learn that the time had been moved up. For days, few details were provided about when the flame would arrive in Beijing or what route would be used to deliver it to Tiananmen.
At the Tiananmen ceremony, a large contingent of police was stationed throughout the massive square. Nearby subway stations were closed and traffic was blocked on the Avenue of Heavenly Peace. The audience was limited to 5,000 invited guests, performers and journalists. Soldiers were also posted in underground walkways.
None of the speakers mentioned the Tibetan situation but instead described the excitement of the Chinese people in hosting the Games.
“The century-old dream of the Chinese nation to host the Olympic Games has become a reality,” said Xi Jinping, China’s newly-designated vice president and the man tapped to one day replace Mr. Hu as president