, BEIJING, March 31 – China celebrated the start of the Olympic torch relay on Monday, but heavy security highlighted concerns that protests over Tibet, human rights and other issues may tarnish its historic journey.
President Hu Jintao officially launched the flame on its globe-trotting journey at a nationally televised ceremony from Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s political heart, after it arrived from Greece.
The 130-day relay, hailed as the most ambitious ever, will cross 19 countries before returning to China for a three-month tour that includes an ascent of Mount Everest.
Hu held aloft the torch before passing it to Liu Xiang, a Chinese sporting icon who is the reigning 110m hurdles Olympic and world champion.
However tight security showed that China’s communist rulers were intent on ensuring the torch relay would begin without any hint of the protests that activists have threatened.
Authorities sealed off Tiananmen Square — the scene of democracy protests in 1989 that were crushed by the military — on Sunday night ahead of the torch ceremony.
Security personnel could be seen on surrounding buildings, and nearby subway stations were closed off to prevent unauthorised people intruding on the ceremony.
The event was open only for 5,000 people selected guests, including cheer squads who waved Chinese and Olympic flags in unison.
Activist groups have warned they intend to use the torch relay to highlight their many concerns over China, including the crisis in Tibet, Beijing’s close ties with the government in Sudan, and domestic human rights issues.
The highest profile issue on the global agenda is Tibet, where a crackdown on three weeks of protests against Chinese rule of the remote Himalayan region has raised concerns among world leaders.
Protests in the Ticapitalfmnewn capital, Lhasa, on March 10 to mark a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule escalated into widespread rioting in the city, which then spread to neighbouring Chinese provinces populated by Ticapitalfmnewns.
Beijing says rioters killed 18 civilians and two police officers. Exiled Ticapitalfmnewn leaders have put the death toll from the Chinese crackdown at 135-140 Ticapitalfmnewns, with another 1,000 injured and many detained.
Despite the massive security presence in Lhasa, there was a fresh protest there on Saturday, according to the International Campaign for Tibet and the Free Tibet Campaign.
The torch will pass through Tibet for the Everest leg in May, and then again when it goes through Lhasa in June. Chinese officials have already pledged tight security for the Ticapitalfmnewn legs.
After a protest at the lighting of the flame in Greece last week, Chinese state-run television broadcast Monday’s ceremony — and the flame’s arrival at Beijing airport — with a delayed telecast.
CCTV’s broadcast carried a logo on the screen saying the footage was "live" but there was a delay of about one minute, apparently so transmission could be cut or changed in the event of a protest.
Last week, CCTV cut away from the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece as protesters tried to disrupt a speech given by China’s Olympic organising committee chief, Liu Qi.
Pro-Tibet activists and other groups have said they are planning protests at key torch relay locations, including London on April 6, Paris on April 7 and San Francisco on April 9.
Other potential protest spots include New Delhi on April 17. The Chinese government has already approached India about security arrangements.
India is home to the Ticapitalfmnewn spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and many other exiled Ticapitalfmnewns.
The torch heads to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, on Tuesday.