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China's quake zone revels in Olympic opening

Aug. 08, 2008, 1:07 p.m. (ET)

JIANXIN, China (AP) On a quiet Friday night, in a village that hardly exists anymore, a man who used to be a farmer pointed a small satellite dish at the sky and placed a television in the plastic tent where his family now lives.

"We have waited so long for this," said We Li, whose fields were destroyed in the May earthquake that savaged this part of China, leaving nearly 70,000 people dead and more than 5 million homeless. Six people share Li's one-room tent, which hugs the edge of a concrete road a couple hundred yards from his old farm. There is just one bed, and at night there is only a single bare light bulb. But his pleasure is obvious, and he grins broadly and takes a drag on a cheap cigarette. "I am overjoyed."

As the opening ceremony for China's Olympics began in Beijing, even the earthquake zone was reveling in the moment. Crowds gathered in tents, cracked buildings and out in the open - wherever they could find a television and electricity.

People watched at gas stations closed for the night. They watched in makeshift bars and restaurants. Large screens were set up in central areas of displaced-person camps, where residents dragged chairs from tents to sit in the open, nestled crying babies and swatted away mosquitoes as night fell. They erupted in a collective "Ahhhh," when the first fireworks lit up the sky over the Bird's Nest stadium, and shouted at the young men who got bored with the long performances and tried to change the channel.

Clearly, though, the moment had little to do with sports. Few people could name events they were looking forward to, or athletes they were planning to watch. But the salesmen for the satellite TV company was so busy here the last few days that they have not had time to install their equipment. Instead they just give a few brief instructions and quickly move on to the next tent.

So why are people like Li spending what little money they have on new TVs and satellite decoders? Part of the answer is propaganda: The Beijing government has been counting down to Friday's ceremony for years, and everyone from schoolchildren to office workers have been officially encouraged to join in the mass enthusiasm. And around here, some of the explanation is probably the pure boredom that comes of lives spent in plastic refugee tents.

But the larger answer is in China's history. This is a country that saw itself as a center of world civilization well over 1,000 years ago - then found itself torn by generations of civil war, political paranoia, diplomatic isolation and crippling poverty. Now, China says, its economic boom and stable government means it is time for Beijing to reclaim its place on the world stage.

Even men like Li, a small farmer from an isolated town, can talk easily on the topic.

"In the past China was afflicted," he said. "But now we are developing very fast, we have become prosperous, and have been given the opportunity to host the Olympic games. I'm proud of that," he said.

Again and again, earthquake refugees insisted they had no problem with Beijing's Olympic spending, which is believed to have reached $40 billion, while the earthquake reconstruction fund is just $10 billion.

If some of that reflects a fear of criticizing the authoritarian government in Beijing, most people also seemed to believe in China's massive Olympic program.

"The Chinese people have been longing for this for years, and now the games have finally arrived," said Peng Guang Qun, a 43-year-old woman living in an 800-person displaced person camp in Yongan. "This is such an important moment for us."

Not that people are happy to be here. Nearly everyone in the Yongan camp is from Beichuan, a quake-devastated region. Authorities have now sealed off the most populous part of Beichuan - people here believe that was done because of rotting corpses left there and the fear of disease outbreaks - and survivors are being moved elsewhere in Sichuan province.

So while much of the camp spent Friday night watching the televisions scattered around, much of the actual talk was about the distribution of prefabricated housing, and who would be lucky enough to be able to move away.

"I don't have time (for the Olympics) right now," said Qun, rushing to the housing meeting. "But when the meeting is over I'll be back to watch."