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Olympics-Torch sparks national pride

Sixty years after the Communist revolution that transformed the country, the Olympic torch appeared with a dramatic flourish in the historic heart of Beijing.

world Updated: Aug 06, 2008 10:25 IST
Paul Majendie

Mao Zedong stared quizzically down from the Gate of Heavenly Peace on a scene he could never have imagined.

Beneath his epic portrait, a great wall of humanity surged forward, cheering wildly and chanting "Go Olympics, Go Beijing".

Sixty years after the Communist revolution that transformed the country, the Olympic torch appeared with a dramatic flourish in the historic heart of Beijing on Wednesday, heralding China's emergence on the world stage.

"I don't think Chairman Mao would ever have imagined this happening," said 70-year-old Liu Changjiang, a former school administrator sporting a Coca-Cola T-shirt.

Shaking his head in disbelief as he reflected on the breathtaking pace of change, he said: "When I was a child, people were desperate for food. Back then, people were just happy to have a full stomach and enough clothes to keep warm."

At the height of rule of Mao, founder of Communist China, just talking to a foreigner could have ended in immediate arrest.

Huang Yuanqian, a 22-year-old student, has seen none of the upheavals that created modern China -- the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76 and ping pong diplomacy between China and the United States during the 1970s.

She was just three years old when the tanks rumbled into Tiananmen Square to crush a student protest before the horrified eyes of the world.

On Wednesday, sporting a Chinese flag sticker on her face as she joined the fervent crowds, she was bursting with national pride. But she did spare a moment to think about what had happened over six tumultuous decades.

"My grandparents lived through such different days. They were very poor then. I am so happy to cheer for my country on Wednesday."

China was once one of the most isolated countries in the world. On Wednesday, the scene on Tiananmen Square felt more like an American baseball game.

Girls waved red and silver tinselled pom poms. Cheerleaders whipped up the crowd. All that was missing was a Mexican wave.

But for Jim Mei, a 40-year-old IT specialist from San Francisco, it was a bittersweet day.

He grew up in Beijing but could hardly recognise his old neighbourhood in the sprawling city of skyscrapers, six-lane highways and elegant shopping malls.

Mei, who has lived in the United States since 1991, came back down memory lane but kept getting lost on a trip to Beijing with his wife and two children.

In an emotional and nostalgic mood, he said: "I feel very proud but it is a bit complicated -- I do feel a bit lost. Things from my childhood memory have disappeared." He hunted in vain for his favourite movie theatre he went to as a kid: "I tried to look for it but it had gone."