China tries to shrug off shadow of Tibet as torch comes to Beijing

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Tight security and careful choreography greeted the Olympic torch as it arrived in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to start its relay around the world before this August's Games.

A finely crafted piece in the shape of an ancient Chinese scroll called the "Cloud of Promise", the aluminium-magnesium torch is meant to symbolise the marrying of tradition and progress. Despite the best efforts of the hosts and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep things upbeat, and despite the use of pro-Beijing Tibetan dancers to put a positive spin on relations with the Himalayan enclave, the recent violence in Tibet cast a long shadow over the proceedings.

And Beijing will have to grapple with a major public relations challenge for the remaining 129 days before the opening ceremony. After arriving on an Air China plane, the torch was carried by the Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang to accompanying cheers, dancing, flag-waving and displays of martial arts. President Hu Jintao lit the torch and made a positive speech which did not refer to the situation in Tibet. "The Olympic flame symbolises the Olympic spirits – hopes and dreams, brightness and happiness, friendship and peace," said Mr Hu as he ignited the old Olympic symbol. "With the spirits, it has come to the land of China."

The IOC kept things apolitical, too. "I am certain that the Games themselves will not only be a moment of sporting excellence but also an opportunity for the people of China and the world to learn, discover and respect each other," said its president Jacques Rogge in a speech read out by an IOC official, Hein Verbruggen.

Security officials kept a tight grip on the ceremony and there were no scenes in downtown Beijing similar to the dissent seen when the torch was lit in Greece, where activists unfurled banners condemning China's rights record and tried to block the flame's handover to Beijing officials.

The festivities in Tiananmen Square, the site of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989, were watched over by a giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong.

China's Communist government has been under pressure from abroad over the way it has handled violent anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in March. Human rights' groups and Free Tibet activists are worried about detentions and tales of abuse.

Verifying these stories is impossible because China has barred foreign reporters from the region, with the exception of one tightly controlled tour, which was undermined when Tibetan Buddhist monks accosted the group to complain of their treatment.

Amnesty International released a report detailing nearly 24 cases of human rights' defenders who have been imprisoned or abused in the run-up to the Olympics. "The crackdown on activists has deepened, not lessened, because of the Olympics," warned Irene Khan, Amnesty's Secretary General. "Unless urgent steps are taken to redress the situation, a positive human rights' legacy for the Beijing Olympics looks increasingly beyond reach."

The US President George Bush has urged Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama's people to resolve the issue. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted at a boycott of the opening ceremony, while the German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be attending the ceremony, although it is unclear whether this is because of Tibet or other reasons.

For its part, China has been in combative mood, combining its message of Olympic hopes with a broadside against the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, who Beijing blames for recent violence. The news agency Xinhua said it had a government report that contained evidence the Dalai Lama and his "clique" had planned the anti-Chinese unrest across Tibet and nearby areas. He denies that.

The flame heads for Kazakhstan today. It will be back in Beijing, after travelling throughout China, on 6 August, two days before it is used to light the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony.