China torch relay engulfed in Taiwan conflict
BEIJING” China’s grandiose plans for the torch relay, the high-profile prelude to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have been engulfed in conflict by an old political rival ” Taiwan.
Within hours of Beijing’s announcement Thursday of what would be the longest torch relay in Olympic history ” an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and scale Mount Everest ” Taiwan rejected its inclusion.
“It is something that the government and people cannot accept,” Tsai Chen-wei, the head of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee, said in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
The episode underscores the deep mistrust between Beijing and Taipei, antagonists in an unresolved civil war, and how entwined the Olympics become with politics.
The torch also is supposed to pass through another political hotspot, the Himalayan region of Tibet that China has controlled for 57 years, often with heavy handed rule. Four American activists were detained by Chinese authorities Wednesday on Mount Everest after they unfurled a banner calling for Tibet’s independence.
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The controversies dimmed the gloss on Beijing’s long-awaited announcement of the torch route.
At a nationally televised ceremony attended by senior members of China’s ruling Communist Party and the International Olympic Committee, organizers unveiled the torch and showed a video of the proposed route.
“It will be a relay that will cover the longest distance and be most inclusive and involve the most people in Olympic history,” said Liu Qi, the head of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee.
The relay, which is supposed to embody the Olympic values of friendship through sports, is a popular public relations tool and the only contact most people have with the Olympics.
As with all Olympics, next year’s relay will begin in Greece on March 25. After circling Greece, it arrives in Beijing on March 31.
Following that, it will wind across Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa and then back to Asia and China before the torch ignites the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, 2008, in Beijing’s 91,000-seat National Stadium.
In addition to about 100 stops in China, other stages announced Thursday include London; Paris; San Francisco; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Pyongyang, the capital of politically isolated and belligerent North Korea.
“The Beijing 2008 torch relay will, as its theme says, be a journey of harmony, bringing friendship and respect to people of different nationalities, races and creeds,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said at the ceremony.
Nevertheless, both Beijing and Taiwan hoped to use the torch relay to bolster political agendas: for Beijing, that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory, and for Taiwan that it is independent.
To that end, Taiwan wanted to participate as part of the international route ” with the torch entering and departing the island via nations other than China. China would like the island run to be part of the domestic route.
In an attempt at compromise, Beijing Olympic organizers said the torch would pass from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei, and then to Hong Kong and Macau, both of which are Chinese-controlled.
“I sincerely hope that Taiwan compatriots can enjoy the glories and joy of the torch relay,” said Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee.
Jiang repeatedly referred to Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau as “overseas Chinese cities,” a characterization sure to upset Taiwan. Jiang also said Beijing organizers had received a written pledge from Taiwan to participate.
“We received a signed letter in March from the head of the Taipei Olympic Committee,” Jiang said, adding that Taiwan had agreed to the torch entering from Vietman and leaving for Hong Kong.
But Taiwan’s Tsai disputed this.
“This route is a domestic route that constitutes an attempt to downgrade our sovereignty,” Tsai said.
Tsai’s comments contradicted an April 13 statement by another Taiwanese Olympic official, who said the island could accept a spot on the torch route that involved Hong Kong.
Jiang, in a concession to Taiwan, said negotiations would continue.
“We will have further conversations and discussions,” he said.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies declined comment for the time being because of the political nature of the controversy.
The relay’s signature moment is expected to be its ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, which straddles Nepal and Chinese-ruled Tibet.
The IOC, which shies away from controversy, was drawn into torch-relay politics after the three Americans and a Tibetan-American were detained on Everest. They waved a banner reading: “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008.” Another one in English and Chinese read: “Free Tibet.”
Earlier Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said politics should be kept out of the games, and that Beijing had the support of the country and of people around the world.
“Most of China’s citizens are looking forward and making preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Most people in the world are looking forward to a successful Olympic Games that can promote the friendship of people around the world,” he said at a news conference.