China dubbed its Olympic torch relay the “Journey of Harmony,” a 21-nation promotional tour for the most expensive Games the world has seen and for a host nation eager to showcase its rising wealth and diplomatic clout.
But what was supposed to be a majestic procession through the French capital resulted in waves of chaos Monday, as human rights groups used the event to assail China’s record on rights and make the Olympic Games an increasingly delicate political challenge for the ruling Communist Party.
China has spent eight years and tens of billions of dollars preparing to host the Summer Games, which Beijing has envisioned as a kind of coming-of-age party to showcase its rapid growth. But the outbreak of violent unrest in Tibet and an ongoing crackdown there by Chinese security forces has emboldened China’s critics, a diverse coalition of rights groups whose demands are often ignored in China and downplayed by Western leaders eager to promote Chinese trade and investment.
Passing through Paris under armed guard, the torch was extinguished several times, and police officers moved it aboard a bus to protect it as demonstrators swarmed the security detail. Chinese Olympic organizers abruptly canceled the last leg, as well as a scheduled stop at Paris’ City Hall, where a banner proclaimed, “Paris Defends Human Rights Everywhere in the World.”
About 3,000 police officers — on foot, horseback, inline skates, motorcycles and even boats in the Seine — had been deployed in an attempt to prevent a repeat of scenes played out in London on Sunday, when the relay turned into a tumult of scuffles and dozens of arrests.
The torch ceremonies have focused attention on causes that have languished on the world’s back burner for decades. At the International Campaign for Tibet, telephones have rung continually with calls from news media outlets, politicians and people wanting to sign petitions and hold events, said Jan Willem den Besten, the Dutch campaign coordinator.
“What is most dramatic is to see how broad and deep the support has become,” den Besten said. “You almost have to feel sorry for the Chinese, because it’s turned completely against the public image they wanted to present.”
In San Francisco, where the torch is due on Wednesday, several protesters scaled the vertical suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled two large banners reading, “One World, One Dream,” and “Free Tibet 08.” At least seven people were arrested.
At the same time, the city’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, was huddling with the police to consider last-minute changes to the torch’s route and new security measures, said Nathan Ballard, a city spokesman. “If adjustments to the route for safety reasons are necessary, then adjustments will be made,” said Ballard, who said the mayor had been in contact with U.S. and Chinese officials, as well as protest groups.