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Originally published Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Paralympic Games begin in Beijing

The Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Saturday with a burst of fireworks as China welcomed another chance to cement its role as a global...

The Associated Press

BEIJING — The Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Saturday with a burst of fireworks as China welcomed another chance to cement its role as a global player to an international audience.

Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-colored suits performed a dance routine in the center of the field at the National Stadium before athletes from 148 countries were introduced. The crowd cheered and waved flags as China's Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.

The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Earlier Saturday, they shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.

"Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilization and progress," Hu said before raising his glass.

"China's people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled," he said in remarks televised on state television. "We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination."

Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a parallel games for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities. The 10-day competition begins Sunday.

Some 4,000-plus athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics is a source of national pride for China and a way to showcase the country on the international stage. The Aug. 8-24 Olympics was overshadowed at times by human rights and censorship disputes surrounding the event.

China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what is says it has done for the country's 83 million disabled citizens.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Beijing used much of its US$100 million budget for the Paralympics to improve handicapped facilities in competition venues, airports, the public traffic system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

An editorial on the front page of the ruling Communist Party's People Daily newspaper hailed the games as a "stage for the world's handicapped people to realize their dreams."

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"Remarkable progress has been made in basic living standards, medicare, education and employment for the disabled," the editorial said, "and the preparation for the Beijing Paralympics ... recorded fresh achievement made by China in promoting the cause for the disabled."

But the country has also had a contentious history with dealing with its disabled population.

The government has long advocated sterilizing mentally handicapped people. In the early 1990s, a draft law was presented to the legislature to reduce the number of disabled through abortion and sterilization, a move that unleashed international criticism.

In 1994, China ratified a law calling for the abortion of fetuses carrying hereditary diseases and restrictions on marriages among people suffering mental problems or contagious diseases.

More recently, Beijing Olympic organizers issued an apology in June for clumsy stereotypes used to describe disabled athletes in an English-language manual compiled for thousands of volunteers.

One section described the physically disabled as "isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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