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China's 'Smiling Angel in Wheelchair'

By Ed Flanagan, NBC News Researcher

BEIJING – In recent days it has been difficult to take away any positives from China's now unfortunately titled torch relay, the "Journey of Harmony to Beijing," at least based on international news coverage of the events.

But the media here have found a positive face in the young, handicapped woman who was confronted by protesters in Paris this week. 

Image: French policemen hold down a pro-Tibet protestor as the Beijing para-Olympics flame is carried by Chinese fencer Jin Jing
AFP - Getty Images
French policemen hold down a pro-Tibet protestor as the Olympic flame is protected by Jin Jing in Paris on April 7. 

Jin Jing, 28, a former Paralympics fencer from Shanghai who uses a wheelchair, won national acclaim for what the media described as her heroics in protecting the Olympic torch from a group of pro-Tibetan protesters (all protesters have been ubiquitously labeled "Tibetan separatists" and "pro-Tibet independence activists" in state media reports).

Jin's feisty defense of the torch – she suffered scratches and a bruised leg during the confrontation – has been heavily covered by China's media, which has the unenviable task of mitigating the scope of the protests.   

Protecting the torch

In a radio press conference which was quickly picked up by the official Beijing Olympics website, Jin described the Paris incident:

"When the second torchbearer was accepting the flame from the first, I was waiting at my position as the third torchbearer. At the time the security around me was relatively light, there were only a few police officers and three, maybe two, escort runners around me. Several Tibetan separatists and members of 'Reporters without Borders' came over to protest.
"They began lunging toward me, trying to grab the torch from my hands. I tried to hide the torch with my body and managed to keep it from them. I was focused on the three or four separatists attacking me. I'm not sure how many were behind me. I felt people trying to take the torch from me. That's when some of the escort runners, as well as the tourist guide assigned to me in Paris, came over to help me, drawing the attackers away.

"People ask me how I dealt with the danger. I don't think I thought too much about it. I trusted the escorts around me. They were the ones, along with my guide, that faced the danger."

Hero's welcome

Upon her return to Beijing, Jin was treated to a hero's welcome as crowds gathered to hail the woman news reports glowingly described as the "Smiling Angel in Wheelchair" and the "Most Beautiful Torchbearer."

Jin, who had part of her right leg amputated at the age of 9 after a malignant tumor was found on her ankle and later underwent a year of chemotherapy, is a charismatic woman with a glowing smile.

And hungry for a positive Chinese figure to serve up to its audience, the Chinese media clearly saw the star potential in Jin: at the time of this posting, fully half of the "News" section on the official Torch Relay website were accounts of her actions that day, including one entitled: "Jin Jing's mother: I'm proud of my daughter." 

Online forums have also been abuzz with praise for her and her dedication to the Olympic spirit. One netizen on an Olympic thread wrote, "I burst into tears when I saw how you [Jin] protected the flame, I think you protected the torch and also saved the spirit of the Olympics."

Attacks heighten nationalism

However, not all messages have been positive. On another popular website, Mopu, the picture of Jin being assaulted by the ethnic Tibetan protester sparked outrage among posters. "Kill with no leniency!" and "kill the foreign !@#$!" – using a slur for Tibetans used amongst ethnic Han Chinese were popular sentiments shared by many of the contributors. 

The majority of such sentiments appeared to be from angry mainland Chinese blowing off steam over the perceived international humiliation that protesters have brought to the torch and by extension, China.

However, if these protests grow, the Chinese will likely settle into a siege mentality, an "us versus the world" attitude.  It may become increasingly easier for Chinese to look at what many would consider legitimate calls for change and dismiss them as nothing more than Western rhetoric and propaganda.