Performers lit up their drums during the 0pening Ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing on Friday
An ecstatic China, an ancient nation so determined to be a modern power, finally got its Olympic moment on Friday night. With world leaders watching from inside the latticed shell of the National Stadium, the 2008 Beijing Olympics began with an opening ceremony of soaring fireworks, lavish spectacle and a celebration of Chinese culture and international good will.
At 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month — eight being a lucky number in China — the world looked toward Beijing and the 91,000 people inside the National Stadium. The global television audience was estimated to surpass four billion people.
"The historic moment we have long awaited is arriving," President Hu Jintao said earlier Friday at a luncheon with visiting heads of state, including President George W. Bush. "The world has never needed mutual understanding, mutual toleration and mutual cooperation as much as it does today."
Beneath such grand themes, Beijing on Friday endured more smoggy skies and a tightening security clampdown amid reports of possible terror threats.
Air China Flight 406 returned to Central Japan International Airport after the Japanese authorities received an e-mail warning that a bomb onboard the jetliner would be detonated as the plane crossed over the Olympic Village, Kyodo News reported. The international flight had been destined for the Chinese city of Chongqing.
Beijing's airport, one of the world's busiest, was already closed during the ceremony in a previously planned precaution. Out in the city, traffic was restricted on many streets and limited to pre-approved Olympic-sanctioned vehicles. Many shops and businesses closed early for security reasons and hours before the ceremony some areas seemed almost deserted in a city of about 15 million people.
China first made its bid to hold the Games 15 years ago, only to be rejected. Since 2001, when the city won its bid to stage the 2008 Games, the Beijing Olympics have been a national priority.
Initially, city officials had planned for a festive public celebration. Giant screens had been erected across the city to allow public viewing, but by midday Friday at least one major screening at Chaoyang Park had been canceled due to a lack of security guards.
Meanwhile, some local newspapers advised people to stay home and watch the show with their families.
"Anyone who tries to disturb the Olympics now by arousing social instability should be severely punished," said Ma Jie, 53, a taxi driver.
"What could be more despicable than that?"
Bush arrived in Beijing late on Thursday night after angering China with sharp criticism of its human rights record during a speech in Thailand.
But by midday Friday, Bush was seen chatting with Hu, the Chinese president, during a luncheon inside the Great Hall of the People.
The two men shared a table with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of Japan and even the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who once threatened to boycott the opening ceremony, Reuters reported.
The Beijing Games are the most politically charged Olympics in decades, especially after China's suppression of violent Tibetan protests in March drew international criticism and talk of possible boycotts.
Earlier this week, four Tibet independence advocates unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner near the National Stadium before the banner was removed and the advocates were deported.
The authorities have also placed several well-known dissidents under house arrest at a time when an estimated 100,000 police and other soldiers are posted around the city.
But even amid such an enormous security presence, many of the people walking the streets near the Olympic Village were giddy and proud that China could show itself to the world.
One of these people, Yang Bin, a disc jockey, had traveled more than 500 miles from Chongqing and was playing hip-hop music along the city's most famous shopping street, Wangfujing.
"I came to Beijing last night to celebrate the Olympics, even though I don't have a ticket," Yang said. "China is never more glorious than Friday. The whole world is watching us."
Part of what the world has seen this week is smog.
The Chinese authorities have ordered two million vehicles off Beijing's streets and closed factories throughout the region, but the skies have only been sporadically blue. Part of the problem is hot, humid weather, absent much wind. The pollution levels have become a concern for athletes. On Friday, the reading was 94 on a scale of 500; any day above 100 is deemed polluted and in violation of China's air quality standards.
The dazzling opening ceremony, directed by China's most famous film director, Zhang Yimou, cost tens of millions of dollars, a fraction of the estimated $43 billion that China has spent in building roads, stadiums, parks and subway lines in trying to transform Beijing into an Olympic city. The elaborate production for the opening ceremony included 15,000 performers and a three-part performance focused partly on China's long history and its desire for good will with the rest of the world.
The production was filled with signature Chinese touches: the elaborate choreography of dancers on a giant calligraphy scroll; the undulating rows of Chinese characters, with the character for "harmony" illuminated in light; and the use of masses of people, working in unison in a grand spectacle centered on traditional Chinese history, music, dance and art.
"This is a great honor for my culture," said the famed composer, Tan Dun, whose score will be played during gold medal ceremonies. "This is a lot more than about China. If we think this is only China's moment, it's a big mistake. It's the moment of the world."
A ticket to the opening ceremony was one of the toughest to obtain during the Games. One person who did not have a ticket was Lei Xiuying, 61, a peasant. She had traveled more than 1,500 miles on a three-day train trip from the city of Kunming. She had no ticket and was sleeping on a pallet beneath an underpass not far from the National Stadium because she could not afford a hotel room.
But she said she had to be in Beijing, anyway. "I watched television and listened to my radio everyday," Lei said as she wore a pin with a photo of Mao on her shirt. "There was so much exciting news about the Olympics that I decided six month ago to come here and see for myself."