High hopes and confidence as countdown to Olympics begins
With the Olympics just a year away, Beijing seems confident it can match the success of previous opening ceremonies and the Games themselves from next August 8.
The high hopes are based on not only the Olympic tradition of success, but also the authorities' increased confidence in their ability to manipulate everything involved, including the weather.
The city has been shrouded in smog and rain over the past fortnight, with traffic paralysed several times this month after unprecedented downpours flooded Beijing's main roads.
But to the relief of the Olympic organisers, who had planned an extravagant party at Tiananmen Square last night, the sun finally broke through the choking haze yesterday morning.
It was not clear whether Beijing's weather manipulation office, which has boasted of its cloud-seeding techniques, deserved the credit for the clear sky. The forecast afternoon showers did not turn up as expected, but the authorities took no chances with the weather and were prepared for the worst.
An expert with the China Meteorological Administration, Song Lianchun , said on Tuesday that rain prevention measures were in place for last night's party, including using planes, cannons and rocket launchers to fire chemicals such as silver iodide into the sky.
Weather manipulation has its limits, however. Zhang Qiang , of the weather manipulation office, said it could prevent a drizzle, but a heavy downpour was impossible to combat.
Pollution in the capital has always been a concern for Games organisers and a target for domestic and international critics. But despite the thick layer over the capital in the past few weeks and the morning haze yesterday, a clear skyline emerged in the afternoon, partly thanks to days of torrential rain. A better reading on the particulate matter yesterday - the main pollutant from the city's more than 3 million private cars - also helped the authorities breathe easier.
Officials have admitted that although August is usually the best time of the year in terms of the city's air quality and drastic measures are planned to clean up pollution for the Olympics, there are still uncertainties and challenges ahead.
But according to Gilbert Van Kerckhove, an adviser to the organisers, people should not be concerned about Beijing's pollution problem.
He said that Beijing planned to shut down all the factories in and around the city at least three months ahead of the Games and no construction of buildings would be allowed next year until the Games were over.
The much-reported restrictions on cars are also part of the organisers' emergency plan to ease international concerns.
Beijing promised the International Olympic Committee last month that it would take up to a million cars off the roads for two weeks this month to test a plan to cut both traffic and vehicle emissions ahead of the Games. But it has yet to announce details of how the trial would be conducted.
British Olympic Association chief executive Simon Clegg said yesterday that it had been 'pretty interesting' to witness Beijing's air quality over the past week.
'I agree that it's quite an acute issue,' he said. 'We are yet to see the effect the reduction of 1 million cars. My understanding is that it will start in the next week.
'We will be very interested to read about the effect of that measure.'
Many people in the capital said they were happy to see the Olympics getting closer.
Yuan Xuejiao , who works in an Olympic souvenir flagship store that opened on Tuesday on Wangfujing Street, said it had more than 100 customers in the first hour.
'Without the Olympics, I would not get a job like this,' she said, 'Working [so close] to the Olympics is simply thrilling. My friends are jealous.'
Han Dan , a graduate student from the University of International Business and Economics who applied to be an Olympic volunteer, said although she was about to graduate, she would be happy to come back and work for the Olympics if she was chosen.
'I am not certain whether I can remain in Beijing next summer because I will be graduating,' she said. 'But I signed up for it anyway. If I am lucky enough to be chosen, I will definitely stay to do the work.'
Her college friend Wang Jinghua , who is in his second year of graduate studies in finance, said he had also sent an application to become a volunteer.
'It is a great opportunity to meet people from overseas,' he said. 'It will be eye-opening. It will be one of the most memorable things in my life.'
Tan Fei , a 20-year-old from Shandong who works on the Olympic Stadium, said he was proud of his involvement in the Olympic construction effort. 'I've learned a lot of things here,' he said. 'My family is proud of me. They always tell our neighbours that I am working here whenever they see the 'Bird's Nest' on TV.'
However, he said he would leave Beijing by the end of the year because the construction work was drawing to a close, even though he would rather stay until the Games.
But not everyone is so cheerful.
Wu Cunliang , a 58-year-old Henan farmer who, as a migrant, also worked on an Olympic venue construction site, said he did not see much difference between this job and those he did before.
'We migrant workers are always asked to do the dirtiest and heaviest labour work. As long as we can make money, I will do it,' he said, adding that he would return to his hometown later this year. 'I wish I could come back to watch the Olympics, but it is way too expensive for us to buy a ticket.'
Mr Li, a Ministry of State Security officer whose job is to snuff out issues that could lead to negative publicity, says the pressure is piling up.
Negative media reports on issues such as food safety, brick kiln slavery and air quality were keeping him busy, he said. But keeping bad news from foreign reporters was the biggest challenge.
'The strain [on the intelligence network] has never been so tight,' he said, because the leadership was worried that China could become a second South Korea, whose military government fell soon after the Olympics were held in Seoul in 1988.
'Our job is to protect the Olympics from anyone who tries to spoil it with their political interests,' he said.
Additional reporting by Martin Zhou