Beijing eerily quiet before opening ceremony

Aug. 08, 2008, 2:21 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) After seven years and billions of dollars in preparations, Beijing's typically bustling streets were eerily quiet Friday in the hours leading up to the start of the most lavish opening ceremony in Olympic history.

Workers were given the day off and many shops were shut, spurred by a notice from Beijing traffic officials advising people to reduce outdoor visits and watch the opening ceremony at home in an effort to reduce congestion.

The iconic Tiananmen Square was empty, part of a security lockdown only hours after hundreds of people attending the morning flag-raising ceremony with shouts of "Go China!"

While festivities were muted and one of the Olympics slogans of "I participate, I contribute, I enjoy" seemed unlikely for most, some residents still were trying to make the best of the date - the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new century. Chinese consider eight to be an auspicious number because it sounds like the word for prosperity.

The official Xinhua News Agency said a record 16,400 couples had registered to get married Friday.

Others planned to put down bets on Olympics events.

Robert Zhang, 25, who works in the retail business, was watching a giant screen in downtown Beijing. He said he was going to put a bet on the German and U.S. soccer teams, because eight is a lucky number.

"I believe that eight is a good luck number but today is 88 days since the Wenchuan earthquake, so I have my doubts," he said, referring to China's May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed nearly 70,000.

"There is excitement among my friends but also apprehension," said Zhang, adding they're also worried about terrorist threats or protests.

Du Chao, 30, who runs one of the few small shops opened in the capital's main business district, said business hadn't been good this month because of the games. Still, he was excited about the games.

"These types of things happened only once in a thousand years," Du said as he sold water and ice cream. "I've even bought a small television so I can watch all these football matches in my shop."

The Olympics have been a huge source of national pride, and many Chinese say it is the realization of a 100-year dream for the country. The concept dates from Zhang Boling, a sports enthusiast who founded Nankai University in the port city of Tianjin, who wrote in an article in 1907-08 on his dream for a Chinese Olympic team.

The idea held particular resonance at the time with China, as its ancient imperial system was in crisis, the country was divided by Western powers and had been defeated by Japan in battle.

A century later, the capital city of 17 million, was instilled with a sense of quiet anticipation.

The elderly flocked to public parks for their usual group exercise. In the Temple of Heaven Park, women swirled colored umbrellas held up to resemble the Olympic rings as a clapping audience nearby sang with a band playing Communist hymns.

The arrival of more than 60 heads-of-state for the opening ceremony shut down the heart of Beijing. Subway trains bypassed the two stops flanking Tiananmen Square, a sensitive landmark for China's rulers. Hundreds of students who gathered to demand democracy and political change in June 1989 died in a military crackdown.

For Chinese dissidents, human rights lawyers, and other activists who have dared to challenge the rule of the Communist Party, which has spent more than US$40 billion on the games and enlisted the support of the entire nation, the start of the Olympics means more surveillance and tighter restrictions.

"I have no plan for tonight," Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer, said from his home. "It's not my Olympic Games. It's not the games for the ordinary people."

Jiang who lives in Changping, a Beijing suburb, said police were coming to question him in the afternoon.

"I don't know if I will come home tonight," he said. "I want to say something: International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has said the games will bring fundamental changes to China. I will reserve my opinions on that."


Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing contributed to this article. Didi Tang in Beijing also contributed.