China’s hopes for a smooth Olympic torch relay were snuffed out after disruptions in London and Paris. The protests centered on Beijing’s heavy-handed response to anti-China riots that broke out in Tibet and surrounding areas in mid-March.
Things started badly in Olympia, Greece, on March 24. A speech by Beijing Olympic committee chief Liu Qi was interrupted by members of Reporters Without Borders who unfurled a protest flag and tried to grab the microphone.
The torch passed easily through Almaty, Istanbul and St Petersburg, but protests flared up in London on April 6. Police arrested 37 people who tried to stop the torch as it moved through the city.
The next day in Paris, 3,000 officers were deployed to protect torch runners. The flame was extinguished several times by China’s Olympic Sacred Flame Protection Unit when protestors came too close.
The torch encountered fewer problems in San Francisco, where its route was changed, and in Buenos Aires, where heavy security kept all but three water balloons away.
As the torch moved to Dar es Salaam, Chinese reactions to the earlier protests began to heat up, particularly online. Complaints of biased reporting in Western media were joined by calls for a boycott of French goods as retailer Carrefour was accused of backing Tibetan independence.
Foreign leaders expressed concern. US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton urged President Bush to join British Premier Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in skipping the Olympic opening ceremony. Bush equivocated, but urged Beijing to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Beijing was incensed by the perceived interference in its internal affairs. But the Tibet issue is expected to continue burning overseas as the torch approaches Lhasa on June 20.