News & Current Affairs

September 7, 2008

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

BEIJING, China (AP) — The Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Saturday with a burst of fireworks as China welcomed another chance to cement its role as a global player to an international audience.

Fireworks at Beijing's National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

Fireworks at Beijing’s National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

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Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-colored suits performed a dance routine in the center of the field at the National Stadium before athletes from 148 countries were introduced. The crowd cheered and waved flags as China’s Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.

The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Earlier Saturday, they shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.

“Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilization and progress,” Hu said before raising his glass.

“China’s people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled,” he said in remarks televised on state television. “We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination.”

Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a parallel games for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities. The 10-day competition begins Sunday.

Some 4,000-plus athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics is a source of national pride for China and a way to showcase the country on the international stage. The Aug. 8-24 Olympics was overshadowed at times by human rights and censorship disputes surrounding the event.

China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what is says it has done for the country’s 83 million disabled citizens.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Beijing used much of its US$100 million budget for the Paralympics to improve handicapped facilities in competition venues, airports, the public traffic system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

An editorial on the front page of the ruling Communist Party’s People Daily newspaper hailed the games as a “stage for the world’s handicapped people to realize their dreams.”

“Remarkable progress has been made in basic living standards, medicare, education and employment for the disabled,” the editorial said, “and the preparation for the Beijing Paralympics … recorded fresh achievement made by China in promoting the cause for the disabled.”

But the country has also had a contentious history with dealing with its disabled population.

The government has long advocated sterilizing mentally handicapped people. In the early 1990s, a draft law was presented to the legislature to reduce the number of disabled through abortion and sterilization, a move that unleashed international criticism.

In 1994, China ratified a law calling for the abortion of fetuses carrying hereditary diseases and restrictions on marriages among people suffering mental problems or contagious diseases.

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More recently, Beijing Olympic organizers issued an apology in June for clumsy stereotypes used to describe disabled athletes in an English-language manual compiled for thousands of volunteers.

One section described the physically disabled as “isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling.

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August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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