BEIJING — Tick, tick, tick.
The official countdown clock in Tiananmen Square hits "4 Days To Go" on Monday. More than 40 million potted flowers are in bloom everywhere, even along the center medians of gritty highways. And for several days now, blue skies have taken the place of the usual gray smog.
So far, so good.
The day China has long-awaited, the day it makes its debut on the international sports stage with, literally, a cast of thousands, arrives Friday when opening ceremonies kick off the Beijing Olympics inside its stunning 91,000-seat "Bird's Nest" National Stadium.
"I hope the sky can stay blue like this, both during and after the Olympic Games," said 25-year-old Zhang Shuang, a government office worker. "This will give foreigners a good impression of the city and leave a legacy to Beijing citizens."
Though it's hot and humid, the city's morale has been lifted by several days of noticeably cleaner air, replacing the shroud of chemical haze that usually hangs over the Chinese capital.
"It's much better than I expected, there's none of the gunk in the air," said Paul Lewis, sports editor of the Auckland, New Zealand, Herald on Sunday newspaper. "There is a little haze in the air, but that reminds me of Los Angeles in 1984, but it's nothing like I've been reading about."
Even if the good weather hangs around, lingering issues could shift the focus from sports in a snap. Among them: Tibet, terrorism and Internet censorship. And since February, the country has been wracked by crisis after crisis.
Deadly riots in Tibet sparked chaos and protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay, stunning patriotic Chinese who staged counterprotests. In May, almost 70,000 people died in the Sichuan earthquake, which sparked an outpouring of sympathy around the world and muted criticisms of China's policies on Tibet, human rights, Darfur and the treatment of its Muslim minority.
To a lesser extent, there was the nuisance of an algae bloom at the Olympic sailing site, caused by water pollution.
A message of friendship
With the games about to start, it's anyone's guess how they will end. They could showcase China's rising economic and political power of the 21st century or they could descend into a miasma of protests, police crackdowns and Chinese citizens angry with their rude guests.
The communist government says it wants the games to convey a message of friendship and has mobilized the security apparatus to ensure it.
In a rare meeting this week with foreign journalists, President Hu Jintao said the games would be successful if the sports were good and they promoted world friendship. He asked journalists to be fair and keep politics out on the sidelines.
That friendly face of the games contrasts with a much harsher side featuring 100,000 troops, commandos and policemen. They're aided by thousands of neighborhood watch groups — whose members wear red armbands — and are further augmented by watchmen and guards dressed in gray or blue uniforms.
Add to this 70,000 Olympics volunteers, and several hundred-thousand so-called "city volunteers" who fill subway stops, work in street-side tents offering tourist information, or simply stand at attention in hallways at Olympic venues.
"A safe Olympics is the biggest indicator of the success of the games," Vice President Xi Jinping, the senior-most Communist Party leader overseeing preparations, told a rally of volunteers last month. "A safe Olympics is also a key indicator of the positive reflection of our nation's image."
Victor Cha, the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, said the government must reach four targets to be successful.
Cha said Chinese athletes must do well in the medal count. Many pick them to win more than 40 gold medals and top the United States. Clean air is a must. Organization and logistics must go well, and political protests have to be marginalized.
"Protest by athletes doesn't really mar the games because that is something even the IOC would be opposed to," Cha said. "But I think major protests that the Chinese put down in front of television cameras, particularly if they are foreign protesters, that could look very bad."
The IOC has maintained the games are about sports, not politics. But Cha said spending $40 billion on venues and infrastructure was a political statement, and the more Chinese officials reject the tag, the more it sticks.
"When you are the biggest country in the world, and you're an illiberal regime, and you're hosting the Olympics, then it's bound to be political," Cha said. "These multibillion dollar iconic Olympic facilities are meant to show that China is not simply the Great Wall. It's modern, it's powerful, it's a player."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.