|Shadowed torch relay that inspires|
During ancient times, the Olympic flame was seen as a symbol of peace, brightness and friendship, said to have ended wars and extinguished hatred wherever it traveled.
In modern times, however, the magic of the torch seems to have failed to pass on the same message. On its current journey that will end on August 8 when it arrives in Beijing to open the 29th Olympiad, its worldwide relay has become one tarnished by protests and violence.
The recently-ended Japanese leg in Nagano was marred by obstructions from "Tibet independence" separatists waving flags of the so-called "government-in-exile," hurling eggs and tomatoes and rushing at torchbearers. A Chinese student was reported injured and online pictures showed him bleeding from the forehead.
The scene was reminiscent of earlier legs in Western countries, notably Great Britain, and France in particular, where a protestor lay in front of Chinese wheelchair fencer and torchbearer Jin Jing to block her way, as several others shouted "Tibet independence" slogans and grappled with the disabled girl in an attempt to wrest from her the torch.
Later, other countries like India had to install heavy security and shortened routes to ensure the relay's success.
"The Dalai Lama clique wanted to use the torch relay as a chance to grab the world's attention, so as to tarnish the image of China and use Western countries as a tool to pressure China on the Tibet issue," said Zhalog, a Tibetan researcher with the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The Dalai Lama has been reported as saying: "I have always supported that the Olympic Games should take place in China." His words, however, have failed to convince the Chinese.
"The 14th Dalai Lama repeatedly declared during his visit to Europe last year that 'the Olympic Games might be the last chance for Tibetans,' appealing to foreign countries to associate the Tibet issue with the Olympics while they hold talks with China," said Professor Zhu Xiaoming with the China Tibetology Research Center.
Playing the Tibet card
The Tibet issue was brought to the fore on March 14, when the holy city of Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, was rocked by a deadly riot. It later spilt over to other Tibetan-inhabited regions in neighboring Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, in acts of assault, vandalism, looting and arson.
On the heels of the unrest were reports of attacks on a dozen Chinese embassies and consulates by rioters, including those in the United States, India, Britain and France.
The violence was followed by distorted and biased media coverage in some foreign countries. Germany's RTL news television later said that it "regrets an error" in covering the riots in Lhasa by using a picture "in the wrong context," while other major foreign media such as CNN and BBC were continuously under fire from angry Chinese netizens.
The latest outburst of indignation from the Chinese was targeted at a lopsided media report in Paris, where the torch relay was hampered and where later the mayor made the Dalai Lama an honorary citizen of the French capital. While local television stations devoted lengthy footage to the Dalai's supporters, Chinese flanking the relay route with national flags could hardly be seen.
"The Dalai Lama, already 72, is grasping the Olympic Games as his last chance," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor with the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University. "In fact, some Western countries also sees the Tibet issue as a lever to confront China and they might be the manipulators behind the curtain."
Differences in ideology and political regimes have always been a gap between China and Western countries, the Beijing-based academic noted, especially when the economies of the latter slow down while China enjoys a miraculous economic rise.
"Before the Tibet issue there was criticism on China's attitude on the Darfur crisis. Now the former noises have been replaced by new ones. Who knows what will be their next card to play?" Liu said, pointing out attempts to "demonize the country" would long exist, even after the Olympics.
His view was shared by Shao Feng, director of the Research Center of International Strategy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Many kiss the baby for the nurse's sake. Chinese people attach much importance to the Olympic Games, and the Tibet issue is just an opportunity or an excuse for some Western countries."
The country's rising international status is undoubtedly one reason for the attacks, said the professor. "China's economy is on the fast track and the gross domestic product in 2007 has exceeded that of France and is approaching the GDP of Germany, which may have given birth to their worries."
"On the other hand, China has benefited from foreign trade, but some foreigners complain that Chinese products, with low prices, edged out their own and workers were hence laid off," he added.
Meanwhile, amid the changing political atmosphere, new officials in the major Western countries tend to be more conservative, which also fuelled the hostility of those countries towards China, Shao said.
Ordinary Chinese unite behind a country under fire
The difficult moment, nonetheless, has seen ordinary Chinese join hands to support the Olympic Games and the unity of the country.
On the portal website Sina.com, more than eight million netizens from China and 150 foreign countries and regions signed their names to support the torch relay. Others like Sohu.com followed suit.
Online forums of the websites meanwhile staged a campaign soliciting donations to buy national flags and seeking "escorts" to ensure a smooth relay of the Olympic flame.
To date, Sina.com has received 26,500 flags that cost 347,500 yuan (about 49,500 U.S. dollars) and Sohu.com 29,403 flags. Thousands of national flags were sent to countries including Germany, Britain, France, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and the Republic of Korea, many of which appeared on the way of the torch relay tour.
"Everyday, everywhere the flame passes, there are our hot-blooded netizens escorting it," said a netizen nicknamed "Nameyers."
And there they are.
A picture posted on websites showed a Chinese student in London wearing a cotton-padded jacket and carrying a national flag. He jumped into a fountain to block two others who held flags of the "Tibetan government-in-exile."
Another portrayed a silver-haired grandpa in San Francisco saluting the Olympic torch with his right hand. His left hand held a placard that read "Greetings to my motherland."
These are just a few stories among the numerous photos entitled "The unnamed heroes behind the torch relay."
A netizen named "Praying for Peace" said, "Let those who want to sabotage the torch relay see how united we Chinese are."
Mellowing of Western opinion
Their voices were heard. Attitudes of some foreign countries are changing.
Nouvelles d'Europe, a Paris-based Chinese language newspaper, carried an editorial on April 18 calling on French media and officials to calm down, to stop fanning hostility between Chinese and French people, and give the Chinese due respect.
An article in the Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao on April 16 said the Western media, which danced to the tune of obstructors and protestors to distort the truth, finally stirred a fire that burnt themselves.
Commenting on the turmoil that has disturbed the global relay, International Olympics Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge urged the West to stop badgering China over human rights.
"You don't obtain anything in China with a loud voice," Rogge said. "That is the big mistake of people in the West wanting to add their views."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who formerly threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, dispatched his top diplomatic adviser to China with his letter to the torchbearer Jin Jing.
In the letter, he expressed his "condemnation" of the attack that "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," and pledged that the incident does not "reflect the feelings of my countrymen towards the Chinese people."
"The letter showed that Western politicians are beginning to reflect on their policies towards China," commented Professor Liu.
"We should persist in our stance but avoid hatred," he stressed. "After all, the Olympic Games is a gala for all human beings."
Director Shao saw strength in the ordinary people through their voluntary reaction. "They are a backup force for our government on the international arena. Their passion and patriotism should not be dampened," he said.
At the same time, "development is our goal and to make the Beijing Olympic Games a great success is the best reply to saboteurs," Shao added.