XINYAN, China -- Zhang Huimin, 8, skips, walks and jogs along National Highway 107, an impish girl in an undersized red track suit. She has been running since 2 a.m. and it's close to noon, but she's keeping a steady pace, driven by a goal: to complete the 2,150-mile trip from her hometown in southern Hainan province to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China.
Her quest has caught the attention of a nation filled with pride at hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, which open a year from today.
It has also brought scrutiny of a less-welcome sort as her father, Zhang Jianmin, garners criticism for pushing her too hard at a time when her bones aren't fully hardened and most children her age are playing at home.
"How can he treat his daughter like that solely for his own money and fame?" asked an anonymous posting on Sina.com, a major Chinese web portal.
As the one-year countdown begins to the 2008 Beijing Games, China is also discovering the dark side of the international limelight it bid for and craved. On 8/8/08, a time chosen to maximize China's belief in lucky 8s, the opening ceremony, starting at 8:08 p.m., will erupt in a blaze of fireworks and glory, stoking the nation's ambitions and solidifying its growing role on the international stage.
But China's big coming-out party is also focusing unwanted Klieg lights on the dark side of China's booming economy and authoritative government, as the world focuses on the pollution, labor exploitation, food and product safety, human rights violations and the country's practice of cozying up to repressive, oil-rich regimes.
By most conventional measures, Beijing will be amply ready for the Olympics. Its one-party state does mass mobilization superbly and has been in planning overdrive for years. Few expect the sort of last-minute scramble that marked the lead-up to the Athens Games in 2004.
All but one of the 37 venues are slated for completion by year's end, eight months ahead of time, with the $3.9-billion, 91,000-seat "bird's nest" National Stadium likely to be finished in March.
"The bird's nest is expensive, but in the long run it should put the city on the international map," said Shen Shizhao, a professor with the Harbin University of Industry and an advisor for the building. "Without its opera house, Sydney wouldn't be so impressive."
In an era when cities compete to pull off economical, debt-free Olympics, Beijing spared little expense, scouring the globe for the best architects and most innovative designs. All told, it will lay out nearly $40 billion on Olympics infrastructure - compared with the $15 billion spent in Athens - and another $25 billion on projects timed around the event.
The expected 1.5 million Chinese and foreign visitors will find six new subway lines, a 26-mile light-rail system, a third airport terminal and runway, and 25 million square meters of property development.
China has long been adept at hardware, but this coming-out party is meant to showcase its softer side as well, including its long history, hospitality and civility. Unfortunately, manners and niceties were often condemned during the Cultural Revolution as a bourgeois affectation, creating a lasting legacy that doesn't respond to a quick makeover.
"It's easy to build a skyscraper quickly, but a civilization isn't built in a day," said Qu Wenyong, dean of the sociology department at Heilongjiang University. "Our software problem can't be tackled in the short term."
Wary of losing face, Beijing in recent months has launched a series of mass campaigns to deter spitting, smoking, cursing, littering, smelly taxis and flies, among other social ills, and to encourage table manners and speaking English. It's also designated the 11th of each month as "queuing day" to bring sharp-elbowed residents in line.
Wary of the ugly side of burgeoning nationalism, it also has tried to drum good sportsmanship into residents, including volunteers roped into cheering for opposing sides. Chinese fans rampaged through the capital in August 2004 after the national soccer team lost to Japan and, a year later, turned a basketball game between China and Puerto Rico into a mass brawl.
Among its greatest challenges, however, is human rights, an area China pledged to improve as part of its bid to win the Games. A host of international civic groups, including those concerned about labor rights, arbitrary detention, neighborhood destruction, press and religious freedom and greater autonomy for Tibet and the far western province of Xinjiang, say China has not lived up to its commitments. Several say they plan to use the next year to pressure and embarrass Beijing.
"We welcome even more constructive criticism on faults and problems," Jiang Xiaoyu, vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, said at a news conference Monday. "But we absolutely oppose the politicization of the Olympics, as this does not accord with the Olympic spirit."
In a taste of the public-relations drubbing China faces if it doesn't handle this challenge carefully, police on Monday roughed up reporters attending a news conference on media freedom.
"The best strategy for the panda is to endure the poking and let them see you're confident," said David Wolf, head of Wolf Group Asia, a strategic public relations firm. "If you start getting prickly and come off as defensive, you provide more fodder for attack."
Another touchstone issue is the environment. Once again, some say, China has set itself up for trouble by promising too much.
"When you try and make something perfect, you create all sorts of expectation problems," said Joseph Cheng, a professor with the City University of Hong Kong. "China largely brings this on itself."
Even as the world's most populous nation promises to spend $12 billion on projects related to a "Green Olympics," including rings of trees, tougher emission standards and new parks, Beijing is adding 1,000 cars a day and remains among the world's most polluted cities.
Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times. Yin Lijin and Gu Bo in the Beijing bureau contributed to this report.