Cheering Chinese stood on their chairs and waved flags as the Olympic torch started its mainland leg Sunday on the tropical island of Hainan — the first stop in what is expected to be a peaceful three-month journey to Beijing.
Protests followed the torch overseas, but organizers in the seaside resort of Sanya promised a trouble-free national tour that will wind through every Chinese province and region before arriving in Beijing before the Olympics start on Aug. 8.
Some Chinese, including the torchbearers, seemed to be relieved the flame was safely home.
“Being Chinese, it’s not easy,” said Zhang Chaoyang, the CEO of major internet portal Sohu.com, at a news conference after the relay started.
Zhang criticized the Western media’s recent coverage of China and of the international leg of the relay, which was marked by protests against China’s policies and its treatment of Tibetans.
“Foreigners don’t understand China,” said torchbearer Fu Shenfeng before the relay started. “They still think we’re stuck in the past. They still think we’re poor. This is our chance to show them the real China.”
The Olympic flame went out briefly at the beginning of the ceremony as it was being passed among local leaders on stage and given to the first runner, former Olympic speedskating gold medalist Yang Yang. A member of the team of paramilitary police that has followed the torch around the world quickly relit the flame. The torch seemed to go out again several minutes later with another runner, but it was quickly exchanged.
Basketball star Yi Jianlian was one of the first torchbearers and actor Jackie Chan was the last of the day. Overall, 208 people were lated to carry the torch Sunday along palm tree-lined roads looking out over the South China Sea.
“I’m very excited. I hope we can spread a message of peace to the world,” Chan said.
At the lighting ceremony, echoes of China’s recent troubles were almost absent. A few people wore T-shirts with slogans saying Tibet was and will always be a part of China. One couple wore T-shirts that said “Go China” in Chinese on the front.
“We just want the Western media’s reporting to be fair,” said 16-year-old Ryan Wang.
The international Olympic torch relay was dogged by protests in London, Paris and other cities where demonstrators voiced their disapproval at Beijing’s clampdown on a broad uprising among Tibetans against Chinese rule.
The torch’s three-month run across mainland China was likely to be less troubled than elsewhere, although disruptions could occur during the relay in Tibet or the western region of Xinjiang.
After three days on Hainan island, the torch moves to Guangdong province in southern China, where millions of migrant workers labor in what has become the world’s factory floor, making everything from Honda cars to Nike sneakers.