China's ambassador to Britain has pulled out of running in this weekend's Olympic torch relay ceremony in the first indication that growing international concern at the country's recent actions in Tibet is starting to become a major source of embarrassment for Beijing.
Fu Ying, China's ambassador to the UK for the past year, was meant to be one of 80 athletes, celebrities and dignitaries to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of London on Sunday, as part of the UK leg of the 130-day relay. But yesterday it emerged she had pulled out of the ceremony after being asked by her superiors in Beijing to spend the day with China's official delegation instead.
Ms Fu's potential involvement in the Olympic relay had infuriated human rights campaigners, who accused the British Government of allowing a Chinese official to participate in the relay at a time when the host nation was instigating a string of oppressive crackdowns and media blackouts.
Human rights groups said scores of protesters in Tibet had been killed and hundreds more imprisoned after some of the most sustained protests against Chinese rule in the restive region for almost two decades.
There have also been a number of arrests in western China over the past three weeks following demonstrations by the region's predominantly Muslim Uighur population.
Campaigners welcomed the news that Ms Fu had backed out of the relay, and said the withdrawal of such a high profile figure from such a prestigious event showed the protests over China's human rights record were starting to rattle the authorities in Beijing.
Mark Farmanar, from the Burma Campaign, said: "Clearly something that was supposed to showcase China has in fact turned into an unmitigated disaster. The Chinese government wants to use the Olympics to make themselves look good and the ambassador was all part of that. It's is a PR exercise that is rapidly going wrong for them."
Anne Holmes, acting director of Free Tibet UK, said: "I think it was a controversial decision and on reflection, they probably realised it was in bad taste. The fact is, Fu Ying is the official representative to the UK for the Chinese government, which is currently instigating a total media blackout in Tibet."
China is fiercely proud of the 137,000 kilometre (85,130 miles) torch relay, which they have billed as a "journey of harmony". Instead, it has become the focus of protests. Campaigners have vowed numerous protests during the London ceremony this weekend, and during upcoming relays in Paris, San Francisco and Delhi. Yesterday police in Istanbul detained six Uighur activists protesting at the torch's arrival in the Turkish city.
The Olympic torch will arrive in London on Saturday night from St Petersburg and will be carried on an eight-hour relay the following day; beginning in Wembley and ending in Greenwich.
The torch bearers
*Ed Coode – Olympic rowing champion Athens 2004
*Steve Cram – former 1,500m world champion runner
*Danny Crates – disabled world indoor 800m champion
*Gail Emms – Olympic badminton doubles silver medallist, Athens 2004
*Duncan Goodhew – former Olympic swimming champion
*David Hemery – former Olympic hurdles champion
*Dame Kelly Holmes – double Olympic champion, 800m and 1,500m Athens 2004
*Denise Lewis – former Olympic heptathlon champion
*Sir Steve Redgrave – Olympic rowing champion
*Tessa Sanderson – Olympic javelin champion
*Leon Taylor – Olympic silver in diving, Athens 2004
Sporting heroes and celebrities
*Tim Henman – tennis player
*Konnie Huq – television presenter
*Amara Karan – actress
*Peter Kenyon – chief executive, Chelsea FC
*Kenny Logan – former Scotland rugby international
*Vanessa Mae – violinist
*Francesca Martinez – comedian
*Dame Ellen MacArthur – champion yachtswoman
*Sir Trevor McDonald – television news presenter
*Kevin Pietersen – England cricketer
*Zoe Salmon – Blue Peter presenter
*Sugababes – pop trio
*Denise Van Outen – television presenter/stage actress
*Theo Walcott – Arsenal/England footballer
*Sir Clive Woodward – former England rugby manager