SANYA, China – Sweating, cheering Chinese stood on their chairs and waved flags as the Olympic torch relay finally started its mainland leg Sunday on the tropical island of Hainan — the first stop in what is expected to be a peaceful three-month journey to Beijing.
Protests followed the torch overseas, but organizers and ordinary Chinese in the seaside resort of Sanya promised a trouble-free national tour that will wind through every Chinese province and region before arriving in Beijing before the Olympics start on Aug. 8.
Some Chinese, including the torch bearers, seemed to be relieved that the torch was safely home.
"Being Chinese, it's not easy," said Zhang Chaoyang, the CEO of major Internet portal Sohu.com, during a press conference after the relay started. He criticized the Western media's recent coverage of China and of the international leg of the relay, which was marked by protests against China's policies and its treatment of Tibetans.
"Ah, foreigners don't understand China," said another torch bearer, Fu Shenfeng, before the relay started. "They still think we're stuck in the past. They still think we're poor. This is our chance to show them the real China."
The Olympic flame went out briefly at the beginning of the ceremony as it was being passed among local leaders on stage and given to the first runner, former Olympic speedskating gold medalist Yang Yang. A member of the team of paramilitary police that has followed the torch around the world quickly relit the flame. The torch seemed to go out again several minutes later with another runner, but it was quickly exchanged.
Basketball star Yi Jianlian was one of the first torch bearers, and actor Jackie Chan was set to be one of the day's last. Overall, 208 people would carry the torch Sunday along palm tree-lined roads looking out over the South China Sea.
At the lighting ceremony, echoes of China's recent troubles were almost absent. A few people wore T-shirts with slogans saying Tibet was and will always be a part of China. One couple wore T-shirts that said "Go China" in Chinese on the front and "Anti-riot and explore the truth" on the back.
"We just want the Western media's reporting to be fair," said 16-year-old Ryan Wang.
After three days on Hainan island, the torch moves to Guangdong province in southern China, where millions of migrant workers labor in what has become the world's factory floor, making everything from Honda cars to Nike sneakers.
"I'm very happy," said Tan Qin Lan, a 23-year-old worker from Hunan province. He and the others sweated beside a police barrier in Sanya under the tropical sun, some clutching digital cameras. "This means China is an important country."