BEIJING (Reuters) - China stages the most expensive opening ceremony in Olympic history on Friday, keen to put the world spotlight on its modern face and the sports action after a build-up that fired up the Communist government's critics.
Guests in the head-turning "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium will include U.S. President George W. Bush, who flew in straight after making his bluntest comments yet on rights in a nation many view as likely to rival his own for global hegemony this century.
China hopes media attention on issues like its rule of Tibet will end at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month -- the number symbolises fortune here -- when the Olympic extravaganza starts before an estimated global audience of one billion.
Displaying its new economic clout, China has invested $43 billion (22.1 billion pounds) on the Games -- dubbed the greatest show on earth. Some $100 million, twice the 2004 Athens bill, has gone on what are set to be spectacular "Big bang" opening and closing ceremonies.
Small groups of foreign protesters have popped up in Beijing this week, but have been whisked off quickly by police forming part of a 100,000-strong security force that China has deployed in the capital to deter terrorists or demonstrators.
Suspected Islamist separatists killed 16 policemen in western China on Monday, and on Thursday two U.S.-based firms that monitor statements from militants quoted a little-known Islamist group as threatening attacks against the Games.
A video dated August 1 carried pictures of the Beijing Olympics logo in flames and a speaker holding an AK-47 assault rifle and wearing a face mask, said one firm, the SITE Intelligence Group.
In July, Chinese authorities denied claims by the Turkistan Islamic Party that it was behind a series of bombings ahead of the Olympics. Beijing has also issued statements this week that it was confident it could ensure a peaceful Games.
The best-known face of Chinese sport, 7ft 6in NBA basketball player Yao Ming, is to carry the host nation's flag at the opening ceremony.
But in a move that could embarrass both China and Sudan, U.S. athletes chose former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong, a victim of government-sponsored Arab militias in the south who fled at the age of six in 1991, to lead their team round the track.
China is a major oil investor and arms seller in Sudan, and global campaigners blame it for failing to pressure Khartoum enough over the conflict in its western region of Darfur. Critics say the Sudanese government has again sponsored atrocities there.
Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that in 2004 and 2000.
And though Bush said he was coming for sport not politics, he gave a speech in Bangkok en route voicing "firm opposition" to China's detention of dissidents.
The finer points of global geo-politics are unlikely, however, to dampen the enthusiasm of many Chinese who have been waiting and preparing for seven years for the biggest international event they have staged.
"My heart is bursting with excitement about the Games," said Zhu Shegqiang, a 22-year-old student walking through Tiananmen Square. "I want people to see what is special about China."
Some 15,000 performers and 29,000 fireworks will give the Games a sparkling start. Film director Zhang Yimou was tasked with condensing 5,000 years of Chinese history into one show.
The opening ceremony has been ensnared in politics from the outset: Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quit as an adviser earlier this year to protest against China's ties with Sudan.
Smog and sweltering heat remain of deep concern for athletes, though neither are unique to Beijing and U.S. cyclists apologised to their hosts for arriving with face masks on.
Skies have been hazy with pollution all week despite an $18 billion clean-up. Meteorological officials predicted clouds and scattered rain for Friday.
Sporting action hits top gear the day after the ceremony.
After weeks of less than glowing headlines, China can look forward to a probable publicity boost. The first gold will almost certainly be awarded in the 10m air rifle contest on Saturday, and Chinese shooter Du Li is a strong favourite to win.
Former Cold War foes Russia and the United States have traditionally fought it out at the top of the medal tables.
But China, boosted by a Soviet-style training system that selects children from an early age based on physical attributes, has been creeping up. Beijing came third in the gold medal table at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and second at the 2004 Athens Games.
Now everyone is asking: can it go one better?
Soccer has been under way already this week. China's women's team delighted the 1.3 billion population with an early win.
And on Friday, a Ronaldinho-led Brazil, who surprisingly have never won Olympic gold in men's soccer despite five World Cup triumphs, beat Belgium 1-0.
The other South American powerhouse, Argentina, defeated Ivory Coast 2-1, with Lionel Messi playing and scoring after a tug-of-war with his Spanish club Barcelona over his appearance.
(Editing by Ralph Gowling)