Olympic torch – and U.S. cyclists in masks – arrive in Beijing

China tries to choreograph a happy ending to its troubled international tour.

Yeves Herman/Reuters
SMOG READY: Members of the US cycling team arrived Tuesday in Beijing wearing respiratory masks.

The Olympic torch arrived in China’s capital on Tuesday after a jubilant reception in the quake-ravaged southwest, as Beijing tries to choreograph a happy ending to its troubled international tour.

Beijing’s residents have been warned they will face sweeping security to prevent any more trouble – and bad publicity – on the last leg of the tour ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony. In recent weeks, about 1,000 Chinese petitioners in Beijing, people from the provinces who have come to seek redress for mistreatment from local officials, have been rounded up and moved out of the capital. Many inexpensive hotels and inns in the city, where such petitioners live, have been shut down.

“This is the pride of the Chinese people,” worker Xu Min said amid cheering crowds watching the flame in Chengdu, capital of quake-hit Sichuan Province where 70,000 people died in May.

But far to the northwest, questions about dissent and China’s human rights record refused to go away, after suspected Islamist separatists killed 16 policemen on Monday in what a senior local Communist Party official called a “terrorist attack,”
Riot police flooded the streets in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar and stopped cars. Exiled dissident groups said many local Muslims had been rounded up, and some beaten. Japan protested after police also beat up two of its journalists there.

The government and Olympics chiefs shrugged off the attack, assuring 10,500 athletes from 205 countries they would be safe.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also tried to reassure visitors and athletes that the smog which often envelops the capital would not pose major health problems.

But not everyone is convinced.

Members of the US cycling squad arrived at Beijing’s swanky new airport terminal on Tuesday wearing black respiratory masks.

The sun made a welcome appearance on Tuesday afternoon as a light breeze dispersed the pollution-fueled haze that had earlier obscured a skyline boasting numerous futuristic new Olympic venues and towers bearing testimony to China’s new wealth.

The IOC’s medical chief said the masks were an unnecessary precaution, and the US Olympic Committee urged the Chinese not to take offense.

“It was in no way intended to be disrespectful,” spokesman Darryl Seibel said.

The last leg of the Olympic torch’s global 130-day tour starts at Beijing’s Forbidden City on Wednesday, before touring landmarks such as Tiananmen Square.

In a tradition introduced before the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the flame is lighted from the sun’s rays in ancient Olympia, Greece, then carried across the globe by thousands of runners.

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