China began counting down 100 days to the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday with songs, a mass run and prayers, as the torch arrived back on Chinese soil after a tumultuous world tour.
Unlike run-ups to recent Olympics, Beijing’s preparations have kept to plan and some stadiums and infrastructure have even been completed ahead of schedule.
The city has spent $35-$40 billion on improved infrastructure, including a new airport terminal and subway lines, as well as $2.1 billion to cover the cost of running the Games.
“The 100 days ahead will bring mounting excitement and energy to Beijing,” the International Olympic Committee said. ”Citizens and visitors will see the city continue to transform itself, as it welcomes athletes, the media and spectators for the final test events, as well as for the Games themselves.”
But over the past few months the city’s smooth preparations have been overshadowed by the torch relay’s troubled journey around the globe, with protesters, especially in London, Paris and San Francisco, targeting China’s human rights record, in particular its policies on Tibet.
Wednesday’s festivities in Beijing started off under a hazy sky with a run around the Olympic Green by 10,000 Beijing residents, part of China’s promise to make the Games a ”People’s Olympics.”
And in officially atheist China, Catholic churches prayed for a successful Games. One nun told Reuters they forgave people who had disrupted the torch relay.
“Of course we forgive the things that those who don’t understand politics have done,” Angela Teresa Ying said after attending a Mass for the Games at a Beijing cathedral.
Security in Beijing has been noticeably stepped-up following last month’s anti-Chinese protests in Tibet, the troubled torch relay and China’s assertion that it has broken up terrorist plots to attack the Games.
The red carpet was rolled out in Hong Kong for the torch’s return to Chinese soil with authorities under fire for barring activists from entering the city.
Three Tibetan activists from the groups Free Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet were denied entry by Hong Kong authorities on Tuesday, while three Danish human rights activists including sculptor Jens Galschiot were barred over the weekend.
Zhang Yu, general secretary of the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN Centre, arrived in Hong Kong from Stockholm late on Tuesday but was also refused entry, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said.
Zhao Dagong, a Chinese writer, was barred by Chinese authorities from entering Hong Kong at the Shenzhen border crossing. Zhao had planned on attending the same international writer’s forum in Hong Kong as Zhang.
Some political analysts said Hong Kong’s high level of sensitivity over the torch relay stemmed from Beijing, and was testing the limits of freedoms granted to the city when it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Three thousand police will guard the torch during its eight-hour relay in the city on Friday.
A highlight of the relay was meant to be the flame’s ascent of the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.
A second special torch was especially commissioned for the high altitude run from the Tibet side of Everest, but a meteorologist at Everest Base Camp on Wednesday ruled out a climb for at least three days because of the weather.
Beijing’s promise to ensure complete media freedom has been called into question, especially following Chinese criticism of foreign reporters for perceived bias in their coverage of the Tibet protests, with some reporters receiving death threats.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denied the Chinese public harbored anti-Western sentiment.
“What they want is only impartial and fair media coverage. That is legitimate,” Liu said.
China has lashed out at human rights groups and some European and U.S. politicians who have, in China’s words, tried to politicize the Games and raised the prospect of an Olympic boycott.
Olympics chiefs have praised the city’s preparations and its showpiece stadiums, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, have drawn wide acclaim.
“The Beijing Organizing Committee has put a tremendous amount of effort into putting on a great Games for the athletes,” the IOC said in a statement.
“It is currently fine-tuning its operations and we are satisfied by the assurances that we have received across a number of areas of Games preparations, ranging from media service levels to environmental contingency plans for improved air quality.”
“I believe the image of China’s Olympics is still good,” said Jin Yuanpu, a political scientist and executive director of the Humanistic Olympic Center at Renmin University in Beijing. “It’s just the Western media and some Westerners who are taking this opportunity to attack us. Chinese are trying their best to be a good host.”