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China warns protesters, allows Tiananmen music

Cyclists hold up flags after arriving at the Great Wall ahead of the Beijing Games yesterday. The 101 cyclists left Paris in March and travelled through 12 countries, covering a total of 13,050 km.

Cyclists hold up flags after arriving at the Great Wall ahead of the Beijing Games yesterday. The 101 cyclists left Paris in March and travelled through 12 countries, covering a total of 13,050 km.

China allowed a first foreign orchestra concert in Tiananmen Square yesterday but also issued warnings to would-be protesters in delicate efforts to show openness while avoiding embarrassment at the Olympics.

The country's Communist leaders want the Games, starting on Friday, to showcase Chinese modernity and economic progress to the world.

Yet critics have used the build-up to put pressure on Beijing over its treatment of dissent, most notably in Tibet.

Nepal detained 253 protesters, including Tibetan monks and nuns, who tried to stage a silent protest march in front of a Chinese visa office in Kathmandu yesterday.

With five days to go before the opening ceremony, Beijing has designated three parks for sanctioned demonstrations. But locals or foreigners wanting to use them must apply five days ahead.

"Citizens must not harm national, social and collective interests," Liu Shaowu, security chief of the Beijing Games Organising Committee, said in a statement.

The Olympics have galvanised global critics of China on an array of issues from treatment of internal dissidents and censorship of the Internet to policies over the Darfur conflict.

Protests on the Olympic torch relay's international legs remain one of the year's abiding global images.

China has a 100,000-strong security force on hand to deal with terrorism or anti-government protests during the largest international event Beijing has staged.

Meanwhile, a youth orchestra of 2,008 international musicians became the first foreign group to play in Tiananmen Square, performing a medley of classical and modern pieces at the Beijing landmark best known to the world for student protests in 1989.

"This is a significant message from the Chinese to say that China is now open to the world," one of the participants Max Ronquillo, leader of the Guam Territorial Band, told Reuters.

As well as increased scrutiny, the Games have also given the world's most populous nation - widely regarded as an emerging superpower likely to soon rival the United States - an unprecedented opportunity to vaunt its progress.

Third in the Sydney 2000 gold medal table, then second in Athens 2004, Chinese hope their athletes will go one better this time and finally overtake the US team.

Premier Wen Jiabao got into the spirit yesterday, shooting hoops on a visit to the men's basketball team. It includes one of the nation's totemic sportsmen: the 7ft 6in Yao Ming.

"No matter whether you win or lose, above all do it with spirit... Win honour for the motherland," Wen said, drawing cheers after he took five shots to get a ball in.

Yao, who plays NBA basketball, is arguably the best-known face of Chinese sport along with defending Olympic 110 metres hurdle champion Liu Xiang. Their features adorn billboards, posters and TV commercials across China.

Visitors have also been gawping at the main Olympic venue, a steel-latticed stadium nicknamed the Bird's Nest, and other futuristic new buildings in Beijing that are a physical expression of the new China authorities want to show off.

With two million or so visitors flocking into China for the Games, a carnival atmosphere has started to take shape.

Many donned shorts yesterday morning to enjoy sun and blue skies that replaced weeks of smog for the last three days.

Rain and severe anti-pollution measures, such as taking half of Beijing's 3.3 million cars off the road and closing down factories, have helped clear the city's notoriously bad air.

But a familiar haze returned in the afternoon, dulling views of buildings and distant hills. The local environmental agency said the main pollution worry - tiny particles from vehicles and industry - was edging up but air quality was still "good".

After its protest-dogged foreign tour, the Olympic torch takes a poignant turn this week through the earthquake-ravaged province of Sichuan on its last stop before Beijing.

The May 12 quake killed at least 70,000 people in China.

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