News & Current Affairs

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

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August 24, 2008

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

The Bird's Nest stadium hosts the closing ceremony

Plenty of fireworks are in store at the closing ceremony

The Beijing Games draw to a close on Sunday after what many have described as one of the best Olympics ever held.

China, having beaten the United States to top the medals table, will hand the Olympic flag to the 2012 hosts London at a closing ceremony from 1300 BST.

Great Britain surpassed all targets by winning 19 golds at the 2008 Games – their best haul for a century.

Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the men’s marathon on the final day, with basketball and boxing finals to come.

Six boxing titles are being decided while the men’s basketball final, featuring the United States and Spain, starts at 0730 BST.

Later, the spectacular farewell in front of a packed house of more than 90,000 at the Bird’s Nest stadium is set to last three hours and will include fireworks displays at 18 locations across Beijing.

The organisers have promised a more light-hearted show than the opening ceremony, which focused heavily on Chinese history.

Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who claimed three gold medals at the Games, will carry the flag for Team GB at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony will also see London mayor Boris Johnson receive the Olympic flag to signal the countdown to the 2012 Games.

Team GB have been congratulated for their efforts in a message from The Queen.

“As a nation we now look forward to holding the Olympic Games in London in 2012,” she said.”The golden triumphs of the present British team can only serve as further inspiration to those who will be working hard over the next four years to make the London Games a shining example of Olympic success.”

China staged the Olympics against a background dominated by fears of pollution, worries over security and protests about its human rights record.

But the sporting action has been enthralling, with highlights including Michael Phelps swimming to a record eight gold medals and Jamaican Usain Bolt breaking three world records as he bagged a sprint title treble.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spoke on Sunday of his hope that a UK football team could compete in the next Olympics, will attend the closing event.

Prime minister Gordon Brown and footballer Beckham

Brown rubs shoulders with Beckham in Beijing

The London Olympics will also have a eight-minute slot that will feature a version of Led Zeppelin classic Whole Lotta Love performed by the group’s guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Leona Lewis.Footballer David Beckham will be involved as will the Royal Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The closing show will also feature a duet by Chinese folk singer Song Zuying and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, along with a performance by a 350-strong kung-fu group.

There promises to be another spectacular show earlier in the day when the US basketball team, aka the ‘Redeem Team’, look to reclaim their crown against world champions Spain.

There are also six boxing gold medals to be decided, with Ireland’s Kenny Egan going in the light-heavyweight final.

Other finals are taking place in the men’s water polo (0840), men’s volleyball (0500), and men’s handball (0845).

In the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around event, Russia defended their title to take gold, while China claimed silver and Belarus bronze.

In total, there will be 12 gold medals won on the final day of action before the Games are handed on to London.

August 17, 2008

Phelps wins historic eighth gold

Phelps wins historic eighth gold

Michael Phelps won his eighth Olympic gold medal of the Beijing Games to beat Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven, with victory in the 4x100m medley.

The 23-year-old teamed up with Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Jason Lezak to claim the historic gold in a new world record time.

They held off Australia and Japan to win in a world record time of three minutes 29.34 seconds.

Britain finished in sixth, but the race was all about Phelps’ place in history.

Phelps, who swam 17 times over nine days and set world records in seven finals, had already won the 400m medley, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 4x100m free relay, 4x200m free relay, 200m medley and the 100m butterfly.

With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination
Michael Phelps

Victory in the 4x100m relay rounded off a remarkable Olympics for Phelps, who has dominated the action in the Water Cube.

However, his final triumph was far from straightforward.

Phelps dived into the water for the third leg butterfly with his team in third position but he powered them into the lead.

Australian Eamon Sullivan tried to chase the Americans down but Lezak held on to clinch Phelps’ record win.

It also took Phelps’ Olympic medal haul to 14 golds, and 16 overall.

Phelps admitted to being overwhelmed after achieving his feat, and was quick to pay tribute to his team-mates.

“I don’t even know what to feel right now,” Phelps said.

“There are so many emotions going through my head and so much excitement. I kind of just want to see my mom.

“Without the help of my team-mates this isn’t possible.

“I was able to be a part of three relays and we were able to put up a solid team effort and we came together as one unit.

“For the three Olympics I’ve been a part of, this is by far the closest men’s team that we’ve ever had.

“I didn’t know everybody coming into this Olympics, but I feel going out I know every single person very well. The team that we had is the difference.

“Nothing is impossible.

“With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that’s something I learned and something that helped me.

“It’s been nothing but an upwards roller-coaster and it’s been nothing but fun.”

His team-mate Peirsol added: “It’s a beautiful thing, I am so proud to be a part of this relay team.

“It wasn’t like we were doing this for Michael, but it’s an honor to be part of it. It would have been something if we hadn’t done it.”

Australian swimmer Grant Hackett said: “Michael Phelps – you can’t put it in words what he has done here, his level of achievement is phenomenal and I don’t think it will ever be seen again.”

August 15, 2008

Two more athletes fail dope tests

Two more athletes fail dope tests

Kim Jong Su

Kim Jong Su was stripped of a silver and a bronze medal

A North Korean shooting medalist and a Vietnamese gymnast have been kicked out of the Olympic Games after testing positive for banned substances.

Shooter Kim Jong Su was stripped of his silver medal in the 50m pistol and bronze in the 10m air pistol, the International Olympic Committee said.

Gymnast Thi Ngan Thuong Do finished in 82nd in the women’s floor exercises.

The incidents follow the expulsion on Monday of Spanish cyclist Maria Isabel Moreno, who tested positive for EPO.

August 14, 2008

Federer hit by shock Olympic loss

Federer hit by shock Olympic loss

Roger Federer’s disappointing season continued as his hopes of winning Olympic gold in the men’s singles were ended by an inspired James Blake.

Blake had not beaten the top seed in eight previous attempts but won their quarter-final 6-4 7-6 and will play Fernando Gonzalez in the semi-finals.

Second seed Rafael Nadal will play Novak Djokovic in the other semi-final.

Spaniard Nadal beat Jurgen Melzer 6-0 6-4 and Djokovic, from Serbia, defeated Gael Monfils 4-6 6-1 6-4.

In the other quarter-final 12th seed Gonzalez, who is from Chile and claimed the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics, cruised past Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 6-4.

I know I can beat the best in the world on my day and I proved it
Federer’s conqueror James Blake

Federer, who will lose his world number one ranking to Nadal on Monday, made a number of unforced errors and will need a dramatic reversal in fortunes if he is to successfully defend his US Open title later this month.

“It’s a big disappointment obviously. The Olympics was one of the goals of the season for me. So obviously the quarter-finals is not going to do it,” he said.

“But I’ve still got to look forward to the US Open. I still have that and then the Masters Cup in Shanghai to really do well now and try and save my season.

“I think James played well. I can only really say how well he played. I’ve played him on many occasions, but I think this was the best I’ve seen him.

“I’m happy for him. I hope he can go all the way now.”

Blake, the world number seven, had won only one set in his previous matches against Federer, but he unnerved the five-time Wimbledon champion with a near faultless service game and an aggressive forehand.

“I always believed in myself,” said Blake. “I’d lost to him eight, nine, 10, 50 times, I don’t know how many, but I had the feeling it could be my day.

“He didn’t play a good first game and that put me up straight away. I played loose and free and I always fancy my chances on the 5-4 game.

“I know I can beat the best in the world on my day and I proved it.”

The 28-year-old broke Federer when the Swiss was serving to stay in the first set and then broke again early in the second to take a 3-0 lead.

Federer, who was struggling with his serve and forehand, broke back in the fifth game to take the set to a tie-break only for Blake to win it after racing into a 4-1 lead.

Federer was due to play in the doubles quarter-finals with Stanislas Wawrinka later on Thursday against the Indian pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi but the match was postponed because of rain.

August 13, 2008

Phelps breaks Olympic gold record

Phelps breaks Olympic gold record

US swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record for Olympic gold medals won by taking his 10th and 11th in a double victory on Wednesday.

Phelps, 23, won his fourth gold of the Beijing Olympics and 10th of all time with victory in the 200m butterfly.

And he claimed yet another gold as part of the US 4x200m freestyle team.

Phelps has now surpassed the nine golds won by Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz and Larysa Latynina to cement his place in Olympic history.

606: DEBATE
Rafa fan

He is also bidding to beat Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympic games and has moved to within three of that achievement.

The US star swims in the individual medley, 100m butterfly and finally the 4x100m medley relay later in the week.

“There is still something left in the tank,” he said. “I’ve got three races left, so there had better be something left in the tank.”

Phelps began proceedings in the Water Cube on Wednesday in typical fashion, beating Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda in a world record time of 1:52.03 to claim 200m butterfly gold.

He looked slightly underwhelmed following the victory, despite the magnitude of his achievement, and revealed that a pair of leaky goggles almost scuppered his chances of glory.

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Video – Phelps bags fifth gold in relay

But he battled on despite the fault to shave 0.06secs of his own 200m butterfly world record.

“My goggles kept filling up with water during the race,” he said.

“I wanted a world record, I wanted 1:51 or better, but in the circumstances it’s not too bad I guess.”

And along with US team-mates Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay, Phelps later claimed relay gold in the 4x200m freestlyle in another world record time of 6:58.56secs.

Russia took the silver and Australia the bronze, while Great Britain’s four came in sixth.

“I’m pumped about our relay,” said Phelps. “It’s the most fun thing to be in a team environment and be part of a relay.

“It’s cool when you get four Americans who all swim well together. Everyone has to play their part or it’s just not going to happen.

“We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to do that.”

August 12, 2008

Empty Olympic seats cause concern

Empty Olympic seats cause concern

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Empty seats dot the stadium as spectators await the start of the rowing competitions under heavy rain at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing on Sunday

In a number of events, clumps of empty seats have been visible

Courtesy BBC

Chinese officials have admitted that they are concerned about the lack of spectators at some Olympic events.

They have hired volunteers, dressed in yellow shirts, to fill up empty venues and improve the atmosphere inside.

But Wang Wei, a senior official with the Beijing organising committee (Bocog), said other Olympics had experienced similar problems.

The comments came after spectators and journalists noticed that certain venues were far from full, even though all events are sold out.

Weather?

Speaking at a daily press briefing, Mr Wang said: “We are also concerned about this not full stadium [issue].”

There were heaps of empties, it’s sickening
Judo spectator

He said a number of factors had contributed to this, including the hot and humid weather in Beijing, as well as the rain.

Mr Wang said some spectators were also only turning up for specific events, even though they had tickets for a whole session.

“For competitions like beach volleyball and basketball, [spectators] have one ticket for the whole afternoon, morning, evening,” he explained.

“They may choose to go to one of them, but not all them.”

Mr Wang, executive vice-president of Bocog, said local authorities were hiring volunteers to fill empty seats.

Volunteers enjoy the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on Friday

In some cases, volunteers have been drafted to fill the gaps

“If they find that there are not enough people, or if they find that there are too many empty seats, they organize some cheerleaders,” he said.

These cheer for both sides to “create a good atmosphere”, he added.

Although some events are full – such as Sunday’s clash between the men’s basketball teams from China and the United States – others have been less well attended.

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These include sessions of judo, badminton and water polo.

“There were heaps of empties. It’s sickening,” said one spectator who went to the judo expecting to see a full house.

There were even a number of empty seats at the opening ceremony on Friday.

One reason for less-than-full venues could be that seats allocated to corporate sponsors are not being used.

Many of these tickets are handed out the night before events take place, sometimes too late for those who get them to attend, according to someone with access to these tickets.

August 9, 2008

US tourist dies in Beijing attack

US tourist dies in Beijing attack

Police and foreign officials at the Drum Tower in Beijing, China

Police were soon at the scene of the crime

A US tourist has been stabbed to death by a Chinese man in central Beijing, officials have said.

A second tourist was badly hurt in the attack at the Drum Tower monument. The pair are relatives of a US Olympic volleyball team coach.

The assailant then committed suicide by jumping from the 13th Century landmark, officials say. The motive is not known.

The BBC’s Quentin Somerville says murders, especially targeting foreigners, are very rare in China.

The attack happened despite high security across the capital on the first full day of Olympic competition, with more than 150,000 police and other personnel on patrol.

Officials named the Chinese man as 47-year-old Tang Yongming, from the eastern town of Hangzhou, but said they had no idea what had motivated his attack or suicide.

“While at the Drum Tower in central Beijing, the two family members were stabbed during an attack by what local law enforcement authorities have indicated was a lone assailant,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement.

Reports say the tourists’ guide was also hurt.

On the scene

The attack happened at the popular tourist attraction some three miles (5km) from the main Olympics site, at around midday local time.

An estimated 450,000 foreign tourists are expected to be in Beijing for the Games, which opened with a lavish ceremony on Friday evening.

The attack happened the day before US President George W Bush – in Beijing to attend the Games – is due to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao.

A US embassy spokesman said he was aware of the reports of the attack.

“I can tell you that we are working with the family and the Chinese authorities as we speak,” Richard Buangan told AFP news agency.

US embassy officials have been despatched to the hospital where the two injured attack survivors have been sent.

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Christina Chen and another protester tries to display Tibetan flag at the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Security staff moved in as soon as the pair tried to display the Tibetan flag

A student who tried to unveil a Tibetan flag during the first day of Olympic competition has been removed by officials from an equestrian event.

Christina Chan tried to display the flag, hidden under a Canadian flag, at the dressage in Hong Kong.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later removed from the arena with a second protester.

The Games opened in Beijing on Friday with a spectacular display of fireworks, music and dancing.

Some 10,000 performers took part in the ceremony, watched on TV by an estimated one billion people, before athletes paraded around the national stadium.

Security was tight in the capital, and three US activists were arrested after holding a pro-Tibet protest.

House rules

Ms Chan sat in the front row of the dressage arena in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong, when the first full day of the Games got under way.

Christina Chan is removed from the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Christina Chan refused to leave and was later removed

She was holding a Tibetan flag concealed under a Canadian flag, and when she and another protester tried to display it, several security officials covered her with a blue cloth.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later carried out of the venue.

“She was sort of disturbing other spectators around her, which is against the house rules,” equestrian event spokesman Mark Pinkstone said.

Ms Chan had also protested during the Hong Kong leg of the Olympic torch relay in May.

China bans the Tibetan flag from events under rules which prevent the display of flags of countries not competing in the Games.

Anti-government riots broke out in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and elsewhere in China in March.

Pro-Tibet groups say there have been many arrests and beatings in the security crackdown which followed.

August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

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We hope the games will show our guests China today, not China thirty years ago

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“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

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