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Beware the iron hand behind the magic show Add to ...

Look, when the biggest branch of the human family brings its will, considerable talents and sheer overwhelming numbers to bear upon a task, it's going to work out rather nicely.

When, in addition, this particular fork of the clan doesn't have to bother about getting permissions or permits, whip a howling, nitpicking opposition into line to get the smallest bill passed, answer to a ferocious, nasty and occasionally nutty Fourth Estate, deal with an auditor-general or 10 and otherwise account for the books, contain the delicious effects of brown envelopes, leaks and secret papers or private parts misplaced by hapless ministers - or suffer any of the other garden-variety slings and arrows of life in a raucous democracy - the result is going to be simply magnificent.

It was.

China put on a hell of a show, the Olympic opening ceremony by turns enchanting (all those winsome children), magical (fairies and spacemen floating down from the open Bird's Nest) and audacious (the last torch-bearer, triple gold medalist Li Ning, running a ring around the top of the stadium in the night sky to light the Olympic cauldron). The Chinese are accomplished, generous, inventive, peace-loving, and they look marvellous to boot.

Can I stop now? Or rather, can I say that what I am about to write next is not a slur upon the people of the most populous nation on the planet, whom I admire and like, the several hundred of them that I have now encountered, that is. I understand that they are proud to be Chinese. I'm a Canadian, so I know from needing approval: You did great, folks.

But Holy Mary, Mother of God, it cannot be considered unmannerly to note that as good as the show was, as smashing as the facilities are and as super-successful as the Games themselves probably will be, it all happened like this not only because of Chinese ingenuity, but also because the government could bulldoze homes when it needed land, put up walls whether or not they were wanted, dislocate folks at whim, spend like a drunken sailor, issue marching orders even about street-spitting and chest-baring and lock up, detain or 're-educate' anyone who dared whisper the mildest complaint.

As even Confucius said, in one of several quotations prominently displayed on screens at the ceremony, "The most valuable use of the rifles is to achieve harmony." Maybe he meant hegemony.

My wonderful colleague Geoff York, The Globe's bureau chief in Beijing for six years now, sent me an e-mail the other night about the bare-chest habit of Chinese men, which has amused me and my visiting colleagues no end. He attached a story he wrote six years ago, I think, about this same penchant for shirt removal and how, in anticipation of the Games, the government had issued an edict against it. Toward the bottom of the story was a paragraph that mentioned that no fewer than 500 people had already ratted out their bare-chested fellow citizens to the Ministry of Good Conduct or whatever it's called.

How unbearably sad, but that's the kind of society Chinese communism has built, where neighbours sell out neighbours even on something as unimaginably small as this, either because not to do so would actually invite scrutiny (Did Yu see Chan take off his shirt and not report him?) or because of well-placed fear that it might (Did the police see Yu watching Chan and not pick up the phone?) or because after so many years, it's every snitch for himself.

(That reminds me: On the road to the field hockey stadium, there is a tree in the second row of new plantings that is decidedly taller than its cousins. Someone should report it; someone probably has.) Similarly, when I asked one of our interpreters a few days ago about the possible places where real, ordinary Chinese would be watching the opening ceremonies, she suggested a city park where there were going to be big-screen TVs.

"Of course," she said slowly, and added, in that doublespeak the Chinese have had to master, "the people there will be organized," by which she meant, they would have been directed to show up with their little red flags.

It's one thing to be "voluntold" by one of your pals that you will, for a case of beer, help him move house next weekend and get his giant box spring up a narrow staircase to the third floor; another for you and him and thousands of others to be voluntold to go to a park to demonstrate cheerful support for the Games and the government.

Whenever I found myself being moved to tears by all these shiny, happy people - on the stage, on the stadium floor, in the stands, giving directions - involved in the show, I could snap myself out of it by wondering how many of them were voluntolds. The homogeneous, omnipresent smile-i-ness of the Chinese is unsettling. It reminds me of what people say when a child is killed: He or she was "always smiling." Well, I don't know a kid who smiles all the time, who doesn't throw the odd tantrum or sulk or pull his sister's hair. Why would the Chinese?

The thing is, as a prosecutor friend of mine wrote me during the ceremony, we don't know, can't know, how much is genuine and how much is not, how happy anyone is, because in a one-party dictatorship, we know only what they want us to know, and one thing we know is they don't want us to know much.

My friend was sick at heart by what he considered the fawning coverage of the opening on the CBC. "China may have a lot of new Ronald McDonald statues and wave a lot of hankies in unison," he said, "but they still don't let their people think, vote, talk. We don't know.

"Human history - Romans, Americans, great empires - are built on freedom, not a better monetary position. I think the human soul wants freedom, liberty, most of all. No better example than the U.S. flag bearer [runner Lopez Lomong, once a Lost Boy of Sudan and now a proud, grinning American]

"So give me liberty," my friend said, "or give me a triple burger and large fries. I take liberty."

So, it was a great show. But that's all it was.

To borrow from a song by Jim Carroll, an old New York rocker, all those people who died - by the millions in the Great Leap Forward - died. All those who were subjected to the self-criticism and struggle sessions of the Hundred Flowers Movement, and who renounced what was dearest to them, suffered. The only nod to the man then at the helm - the Great Helmsman - was in the vaguely Mao-style jackets worn by the Olympic flag-bearers, all great Chinese Olympians.

The party, the government, that can so revise history, obliterate great swaths of it, can do anything. No wonder these Olympics were built with less fuss than it takes the average Canadian to get the okay from the committee of adjustment to enlarge his garage.

The former Olympians handed off the flag to eight uniformed members, I think of the People's Liberation Army, who smartly marched it, in a nice, high goose-step, to the pole. It was a fine reminder, the veiled threat amid the colour and fireworks and fun.

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