BEIJING — On Friday evening, as princes, kings and presidents look on, China will fill the sky over its capital with an awesome display of fireworks and make its case to the world that it was no mistake to award Beijing the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Some 80 heads of state and government, including President Bush, will witness Friday's opening ceremony, a 210-minute spectacle of national pride and high tension.
Few hearts will be pounding more fiercely than those of China's leaders, who feel immense pressure to show that their huge nation with its authoritarian one-party political system can host an impeccable Olympics.
China considers the games a milestone marking its emergence as a major global power. Arguably, the Beijing games are the most highly charged Olympics ever held in Asia, certainly more so than the 1964 Tokyo games and the 1988 Seoul games, which signaled Japan's and South Korea's emergence from wartime devastation.
"What was different about postwar Japan was that (the Japanese) seemed to want to be self-effacing," said June Teufel Dreyer, an East Asia scholar at the University of Miami. "There was not that braggadocio that you see in the Chinese."
China has much to be proud of. The world's fourth-largest economy grows at a dazzling, double-digit pace, sustaining Asia while a U.S. slowdown dampens the mood in the West. Around Beijing, sleek new high-rises, swank restaurants with European chefs, new subway lines and high-priced art galleries ensure the Chinese capital a place on the list of the world's most cosmopolitan cities.
Workers toil to erect fences around building sites so that tourists arriving for the games won't see the mess behind the building boom, and in some ways the fences symbolize China's public and private faces.
Secrecy, political control and punishment for those who oppose aspects of the Communist Party's policies remain core aspects of China's modern identity. Even the nature of the opening ceremonies — directed by famed filmmaker Zhang Yimou — is guarded as closely as nuclear secrets.
As the games unfold through Aug. 24, there will be many subplots to the sprint for gold medals, some related to the control that China exerts over its people, others to the powerful sense of grievance that lingers in a proud nation that suffered under foreign domination until 1949, still others over the fear that terrorism could mar the games.
For the first time in nearly six decades, China is opening its doors to massive numbers of foreign journalists — some 20,000 accredited journalists and another 6,000 without formal accreditation — and it's already begun to backtrack on pledges to give them unfettered freedom during the Olympic period.
Foreign journalists arriving for the games complain that China retains a chokehold on the Internet. Sites for human rights group such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remain blocked, as do some news sites, such as the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Chinese-language site and the newspaper The Philadelphia Inquirer, and some foreign university sites.
A spokesman for the Beijing games, Sun Weide, said that reporters would have no access to some Web sites, such as those hosted by the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong, suggesting that those sites are irrelevant to their coverage.
"Our promise was that journalists would be able to use the Internet for their work during the Olympic Games," Sun told reporters. "So we have given them sufficient access to do that."
Security has become an overarching theme of the games, supplanting the onetime top goal of hosting the best Olympics ever. China has sharply curbed the issuance of visas, on the theory that fewer foreigners mean less potential trouble. As a side benefit, the stands will fill with Chinese rooting for the home team.
A crackdown on bars, music halls and some restaurants with outdoor dining areas — some places have been closed or ordered to move seats indoors — has some Beijing residents griping about the "no fun" Olympics.
Unsolved bus bombings in Shanghai in May and in Kunming on July 21 have heightened concern that Islamic militants from western China may try to disrupt the games.
Yet Chinese remain enthusiastic, volunteering in huge numbers. Some 100,000 volunteers will staff Olympic venues, while another 400,000 are at service kiosks, crosswalks, parks and other sites around the city.
Chinese strive to be good hosts, fervently hoping that the games will come off flawlessly and Chinese athletes will perform exceptionally.
They're too polite to say so, but many Chinese want their Olympians to gun for the U.S. team, hoping to topple it from the top spot on the gold medals table.
At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, China won 32 gold medals, four shy of the number that U.S. athletes captured.
Numerous forecasts suggest that China may indeed unseat the United States, using the home-field advantage and the largest athletic squad ever. China named 639 athletes to its Olympic roster — more than the 596 American athletes — and will compete in all events, including team handball and men's field hockey, two events that the U.S. squad hasn't entered.
Daniel Johnson, a Colorado College economist, predicts that China's squad will win 44 gold medals this year, ending the gold-medal dominance that U.S. athletes have enjoyed since the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain. American athletes will win only 33 gold medals, he forecasts, although the U.S. still will win more medals overall than China.
John Hawksworth, an economist in London with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a global accounting firm, predicted in a recent study that Chinese athletes will take home 88 gold, silver and bronze medals, 25 more than they did in the 2004 games. He didn't forecast how many gold medals China would win.
Some Chinese worry that the national focus on gold medals displays an unseemly side of the nation, an insecurity that it still doesn't measure up in the international arena no matter what it achieves.
"It is true that we hope athletes win lots of gold medals," an essayist with the pen name Wu Yue San Ren wrote Wednesday in the Beijing News. "However, if we emphasize gold medals too much, we expose our 'weak country' mindset."
Only culture and prosperity will bring true pride to China, he wrote, "not the gold medals hanging around the athletes' necks."
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