Opening gala wins raves, raises questions

BEIJING Sat Aug 9, 2008 3:37am EDT

1 of 18. A paramilitary policeman keeps watch as fireworks explode during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Phil Noble

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Audiences around the world gave rave reviews to the Beijing Olympics opening extravaganza on Saturday, but some questioned the military involvement and the show got a decidedly mixed reaction from political rival Taiwan.

Political controversy has dogged Beijing since it was awarded the Games seven years ago, but the opening gala on Friday aimed to shift the focus towards themes of sport and friendship with its spectacle of fireworks, drums and dancers.

"It was spectacular, really unbelievable," said First Lady Laura Bush, who attended with President George W. Bush.

"One of the best I've ever seen," said former American sprinter Michael Johnson, a guest commentator on the BBC.

Chinese media acclaimed the ceremony as a moment when national achievements and ambitions won acceptance on a world stage, putting aside rancor over issues such as China's policy towards Sudan and its crackdown on unrest in Tibet.

"This great performance was a brilliant distillation of 5,000 years of glorious history," the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily (www.people.com.cn) said. "China will embrace the world with openness, self-confidence and warmth."

But in neighboring Taiwan, the self-governed island China has claimed as its own since the end of the civil war in 1949, the show had mixed reviews, despite Taiwan athletes being greeted with thunderous applause in the Bird's Nest.

The pro-independence Taipei Times slammed the entire Games as a series of broken pledges by an authoritarian regime.

"It started with grim paramilitary goons in blue track-suits accompanying the Olympic torch on its embarrassing tour of democratic countries," the English-language daily said.

"And now the Games begin with broken promises on press freedom and shipping in party members to forcibly replace ordinary Chinese hoping to see the torch relay."

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald wondered if Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who directed the show, was misguided in showcasing China's military strength at a time the country is trying to reassure the world about its rapid rise.

"The heavy presence of Chinese (People's) Liberation Army officers throughout the proceedings left many wondering exactly what image the hosts were intending to project to the international community...," the newspaper said.

"At a time when Tibet, Darfur and China's broader human rights record are proving delicate issues for Beijing organizers, the move to present thousands of drilled, sobersided army officers ... was surprising for its brazenness; a none too subtle projection of strength," it said.

Asked about the military theme, Zhang Jigang, chief of the People's Liberation Army dance troupe, told reporters there were "excellent performers and directors" in the military.

"I think this is a Chinese characteristic," he said. "All of the military arms have ... have wonderful acrobats and opera troupes. We should make use of such resources."

In France, scene of confrontations between demonstrators and Chinese security officials when the Olympic torch passed through, sports daily L'Equipe, described the show as "enchanting".

But some media said isolated boos and whistles were heard as the French athletes marched through the stadium, possibly a reflection of the tensions over the torch relay.

"Mixed welcome for the French team," said Le Figaro.

Other French commentators were won over.

"Whatever else you might think, this is really a magnificent spectacle," said a commentator on French public television.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Edwin Chan and Taipei, Sydney, London and Paris bureau; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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