Country readies for Beijing Olympic games

BEIJING — Excitement is building in Beijing over an Olympic celebration that Chinese authorities keenly intend to mark the country’s emergence on the world stage.

With the Opening Ceremony set to take place Friday, the celebratory mood was underlined Sunday by an orchestra of 2,008 musicians representing various nations who belted out a medley ranging from classical pieces to Gloria Estefan tunes on Tiananmen Square. The youth ensemble — which included musicians from schools and universities in China, the U.S., Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Guam — is the first foreign orchestra to perform on the central plaza where tanks rolled in a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989.

But not everything is upbeat regarding these Olympic Games.

But the upbeat fanfare belies continued discord surrounding these Olympic Games.

After days of negative publicity for failing to meet its promises to be more open for the Games — in particular its failure to meet promises to the Intl. Olympic Committee on Internet freedom — Beijing is trying to balance the need to give some leeway to its critics with fears that it could be embarrassed by protest groups out to make a point.

China’s critics are keen to use the Olympics to make sure that issues such as democracy, human rights, Tibetan independence and China’s policy on Darfur remain hot topics. But groups seeking to protest during the Games have been told to give plenty of notice before they will be permitted to demonstrate.

Trying to answer accusations that it is repressing dissent, China said last week it would allow officially approved demonstrations, but only at three parks in the capital, none of which are anywhere near the main Olympic sites. And Beijing security officials said Sunday that locals or foreigners wanting to use those sites must apply five days ahead of time.

“Assembling to march and protest is a citizen’s right. But it must be stressed that when exercising this right, citizens must respect and not harm others’ freedoms and rights and must not harm national, social and collective interests,” said Liu Shaowu, security chief of the Beijing organizers.

China has 100,000 officers on hand to deal with terrorism or anti-government protests during the Games. Security around the iconic Tiananmen Square has been tightened, with checkpoints at each underground entrance checking bags for “explosives, guns, knives, drugs and pornographic materials.”

Further spotlighting the restrictions surrounding the Games, a vocal segment of the 30,000 journalists in town has expressed frustration about not having full and frank access to the Internet.

Meanwhile, Beijing seems to be making progress on the city’s pollution problem. Skies over Beijing were sunny and clear for a few days following weeks of smog, a sign that anti-pollution efforts, such as taking half of Beijing’s 3.3 million cars off the road and closing down steel factories and coal-fired power plants, might be working.

The clear skies have given visitors a chance to get a proper look at some of the fantastic venues built for the Games, including the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube aquatic stadium nearby.

And despite ongoing pressure over human rights and pollution, the normal business of the Games continues to gather steam.

Saturday night saw a dress rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony, which included fireworks but was shrouded in secrecy — although Korean TV leaked some footage of the show, to China’s irritation.

Premier Wen Jiabao, the leader who became known as “Grandpa Wen” for his relief work after the Sichuan earthquake, shot hoops during a visit to the men’s basketball team, which includes China’s most popular sportsman, 7-foot, 6-inch NBA star Yao Ming.

“No matter whether you win or lose, above all do it with spirit. Win honor for the motherland,” Wen said.

For the record, it took Wen five shots to score a hoop. China has ambitions of outstripping the U.S. in the medal tally at the Games.

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