China's Road to the Olympics

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BEIJING, China - China's road to this international stage began July 13, 2001 when Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

The day has finally come. Seven years in the making, close to $42 billion spent on changing the very skyline of Beijing.

Just about everywhere you look whole city blocks were demolished to make way for a slew of state-of-the art Olympic venues, new hotels and modern buildings.

Frequent visitors to the Chinese capital are even amazed at the transformation.

"It's very weird, like clash of cultures, like between the west and the east and it's really exciting and it's really new as well," a visitor from England said.

Most of the $42 billion has gone toward the building of roads, subways and airports.

"This is a great honor for our country and I am glad we spent all that money," a China native said.

More than 40 million plants have been added in a move to cut down on pollution and decorate key venues and roads. But despite spending billions to move refineries and steel mills out of town, close down factories and cut the number of cars on the road, Beijing has been blanketed for weeks by choking pollution. Authorities have even tried firing rockets to make rain to clean the air.

Meanwhile, 100,000 anti-terrorism forces have been mobilized to protect the Games. And another 500,000 volunteers will be on the neighborhood street corners watching for suspicious people.

"We want to preserve the festive and joyful atmosphere of the Olympic venues. At the same time, we want to reduce the impact security has on daily life," said Liu Shaowu, head of the Olympic Safety Department.

Despite its authoritarian government, suppression of dissent, and poor human rights record, China has undergone profound changes in the last seven years. It's the fourth-largest economy in the world, growing at about 10 percent a year every year.

"Just like the U.S. is the economic power in the west we are the rising power in Asia," a woman said.

And you just have to spend a little time on the streets of Beijing to sense that there's a new confidence in the air as China trades its traditionally isolationist image for a freer society.

"Change does not happen overnight; it takes time. But you have to appreciate the great strides we have made in the last 30 years to be a more open society," another woman said.

Above all, there's a deep desire here for China to be treated as an equal by other nations. Many are hoping the Olympic Games will give the country more opportunities to connect with the rest of the world.

"It's good to be in Beijing, China is great - everything, the food, the sports, the people, you've got to come!" an American tourist said.

This evening's opening ceremony in the spectacular "Bird's Nest" national stadium welcomed some 500,000 visitors from around the world, 11,000 athletes and 20,000 journalists.

Most expect the 2008 Games to be a sporting success.

But behind the glitz and glamour of playing host, the big question is will China's newfound status prompt the communist leaders to encourage political reform and greater openness.

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