Olympic torch relay brings China woe rather than glory

BEIJING — The Olympic torch relay was meant to kick off China's moment in the sun, but it's turned into a public relations fiasco with ever-larger squads of police in foreign capitals shielding the torch from protesters.

China has given no sign that it will cut short the relay, which continues its 21-city global odyssey Saturday in Bangkok, Thailand, and Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Yet frustration has set in that the troubled torch relay may signal further minefields ahead for the Summer Games on Aug. 8-24, and a loss of face for China rather than a boost for the world's most populous nation.

"All that has happened is a kind of humiliation," said Hu Xingdou, a political analyst at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "The government never expected this."

At nearly every stop, authorities have altered the route or cut it short to keep protesters from disrupting the relay, as they did April 6 and 7 in London and Paris.

Observers in China voiced relief that a torch stop Thursday in New Delhi came off without major incident, crediting a massive police turnout that deterred exiled Tibetan residents — who number some 100,000 in India — from protesting China's handling of Tibetan uprisings within its borders last month.

"India sent 15,000 police out, and there was not a single incident. And they arrested 160 to 170 protesters," said Shen Dingli, an international relations scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai. "Why can't those rich countries ... do a better job than India does?"

China had hopes that the Summer Games would showcase the nation's dramatic economic rise, its glittering new skyscrapers and its ability to host the most expensive Olympic Games in history, with the best facilities.

Instead, the noisy protests among Tibet supporters have triggered anger among many ordinary Chinese, who think that the West wants to hobble China's rise, and have proved embarrassing to the International Olympic Committee.

"Everybody's losing. No one comes out looking good in this exercise," said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. "The tragedy of the protesters is that they've stoked a very powerful Chinese nationalism, and that's not going to be very helpful to Tibet."

In the Thai capital, police prepared not only for pro-Tibet protesters but also for demonstrators who are unhappy with China's support of army generals ruling in neighboring Myanmar and of weapons sales to Sudan, where violence racks the troubled Darfur region.

As the torch relay moves around the world, organizers deploy greater numbers of police officers and keep the public farther away. Olympic Games sponsors have notably distanced themselves from the relay, not wanting to associate with an event that's producing images of police clashing with demonstrators.

A chartered jetliner carrying the torch landed before dawn Friday in a military-controlled area of Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, far away from the public.

Later next week, the torch will be taken to Australia, where authorities face the prospect of massive numbers of Olympics supporters from within a large resident ethnic Chinese community facing off with pro-Tibet demonstrators.

"There's talk of tens of thousands from both sides congregating in Canberra," the site of the torch relay, said Malcolm Cook, the Asia and Pacific program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. "The worry is that emotions on both sides are very high."

After Australia, the relay continues to Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam and Hong Kong and ends May 3 in Macau before beginning a lengthy journey through China, including Tibet.

Amid the troubles earlier this month, some IOC officials considered cutting short the global torch relay but later abandoned the idea.

One IOC member said he thought that the international relay should be scrapped.

"I have always thought the international torch relay is not a particularly good idea," IOC member Dick Pound, a Canadian who directed the investigation of corruption at the Winter Olympics in 2002 and helped fight the widespread use of performance drugs in sports, told "The Diane Rehm Show," a nationally syndicated U.S. public-radio program. "You can't do it thoroughly enough. It costs a fortune. The logistics are terrible."

Some Chinese, meanwhile, said the protests signaled that the country must boost its vigilance to prevent demonstrators from upstaging the games once they begin.

"We have to be prepared for something to happen during the Olympics," Hu said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report.)