BEIJING — With fireworks and huge fanfare, Beijing launches a one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games this week, an event that this country's leaders believe will mark China's arrival as a global power.
As a clock in Tiananmen Square ticks toward Aug. 8, 2008, when the games will begin, China is taking every step possible to ensure that next year's Summer Olympics will be the most impressive of modern times.
The road ahead is rocky, however. Activists on issues ranging from Tibet to religious freedom savor the chance to hijack the world limelight with protests. Some critics already have dubbed the 2008 games the "Genocide Olympics" because of China's support for Sudan's regime.
Then there's the smog. Thick haze has cloaked China's capital all month, a reminder of the hurdles the country faces as it seeks to avoid images of athletes collapsing in wheezing gasps.
The government plans to force cars from the road to improve air quality, though a two-week test affecting a million cars that was to begin this week was postponed Monday.
As a one-party state, China's government can impose drastic measures with a stroke of the pen. It's spent $15 billion to move a steel mill and coal-fired power plants out of Beijing, and it will shut down most construction sites by late this year, hoping to limit airborne dust.
Among ordinary Chinese, expectations are soaring that the dazzling new venues, precise planning and rising patriotism among the one-fifth of humanity that resides in this nation will make the Summer Games a grand and unforgettable gala for their nation.
Experts say the games may boost China's global stature in long-lasting ways.
"The Chinese will be even more secure internationally that they've been recognized in this way," said Dorothy J. Solinger, a political scientist and veteran China watcher at the University of California at Irvine.
Much about the complex preparations is going smoothly, far more so than in Athens, Greece, where construction dragged on until the last minute before the 2004 Summer Games. Beijing is completing 11 new world-class venues, doling out double what Athens spent.
All the venues except the glittering "Birds' Nest," the seemingly random twist of shiny girders that's the eye-catching new national stadium, will be finished by year's end, Wang Wei of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee said Monday.
A $40 billion spending boom, largely on transit upgrades, will leave a huge legacy once the games conclude. Many visitors will land at an airport with a soaring new terminal and a new high-speed rail link to the city. Workers are racing to finish three new subway lines, with 124 miles of track. New trains will be installed with digital television screens that will air coverage of the games nonstop.
Advertisements for the games are everywhere — television, radio, billboards and newspapers — a sign that the government sees them as a domestic political tool.
"Through the Olympic Games, the government wants to show the people that the nation is prosperous, stable and harmonious, and that the ruling party is capable," said Hu Xindou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Behind the scenes, authorities have displaced as many as 1.5 million residents to make way for Olympic venues, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, an advocacy group, said in a report last month.
The use of such authoritarian brawn is common under the guise of maintaining social harmony and achieving government goals, whatever the cost.
China is expected to bar entry to activists from groups abroad that oppose its policies on issues such as Tibet, Taiwan, the death penalty and the Falun Gong spiritual sect.
"There is the risk of groups using the Olympics as a political platform," said Scott Kronick, the president of China operations for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has offered training sessions to the city government and the local Olympic Committee.
Some groups plan to use the run-up to the games to draw headlines and sympathy for their causes.
One such incident occurred Monday afternoon. Leaders of the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders climbed a pedestrian bridge near the Beijing Olympic Games headquarters and unfurled banners for greater press freedom. Minutes later, police roughed up a handful of foreign reporters, holding them for an hour or so.
"We absolutely oppose the politicization of Olympic affairs, for this does not accord with the Olympic spirit," Jiang Xiaoyu of the organizing committee said earlier Monday at a news conference.
Because of China's history of quashing revolt, any protest has the potential to become an iconic image, like the moment when U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a "black power" salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City.
Among the uncertainties: What happens if Taiwan, which is self-governing but claimed by China, chooses the Olympic period to declare formal independence?
"It's hard for China to go to war against Taiwan if it announces independence during the Olympic period," Hu said.
Organizers hope that the opening ceremonies, directed by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, will pull the focus to the Olympic spirit and world sport.
Even there, pressure is building for China's athletes to use their home advantage to surpass the United States and Russia for the first time in a sprint for the highest number of medals.
"The general public has very high expectations of us, but actually our athletes will be faced with extremely fierce competition," Cui Dalin, the vice president of the State General Administration of Sports, said earlier this month.
Defeating the city's persistent smog may be the biggest challenge. Choking pollution has cut visibility to a mere three blocks for the past week. The sun is faint in the sky.
Beijing set a goal this year of 245 "blue sky days" with reasonable air quality. In the first half of the year it managed 110.
The government is working hard to fix the problem. New fleets of buses run on natural gas or electric hybrid technology. Millions of trees have been planted. Some observers are hopeful that China can ease the contamination. Worried Chinese officials are willing to try to more drastic measures.
"When China puts its mind to something, it can address it," Kronick said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)