Even as China's opening ceremonies for the Olympics inspired awe, there was something repellent in the exactitude of such mass perfection.
The military precision of 2,008 drummers moving in perfect synchronicity, pounding out the sound of a billion hearts beating, was both mesmerizing and slightly creepy.
If they can do that ...
What else can this giant power do with a limitless supply of human resources and dedicated discipline?
Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Just as China's selection as host country signaled its emergence as a global power, Germany's marked that nation's return to the international community following its defeat in World War I.
Although Adolf Hitler was already busy rounding up Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others for detention and/or sterilization, the Games allowed him to pull a propaganda coup of peaceful tolerance. The Holocaust and World War II soon followed.
Like Germany, China has aimed to make a good impression. So determined were the Olympic hosts to project a positive image that officials even swapped out the adorable child-performer who sang "Ode to the Motherland." The little girl in the red dress who captured hearts around the globe wasn't really singing. She mimed.
The real singer was a less-adorable child, by China's judgment. Her chubby cheeks and crooked teeth made her face "not suitable," officials said, giving new meaning to the expression "game face."
Thus, Yang Peiyi was replaced by Lin Miaoke.
Apparently, the Chinese hadn't met Paul Potts, the chubby-cheeked, crooked-toothed tenor who became an overnight sensation when he wowed "Britain's Got Talent" judges with his rendering of Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma." Potts, now the beneficiary of recording contracts and millions of fans, has had his teeth fixed, but part of his initial charm was his ordinary packaging. There was this heavenly voice residing in the human equivalent of a tract house.
People identified with his imperfections and loved him all the more for his humility and transcendent performance. He was so ... human.
China isn't burdened by such concerns. Sentimentality doesn't enter into the totalitarian equation. In such a world, innocence is irrelevant and deceit is a lesson best learned young. Who cares that a little girl was told she wasn't pretty enough to be seen by the world and that her voice -- though lovely -- belonged not to her, but to the homeland?
That single gesture, relatively small amid the extravaganza, said more about China than all the fireworks, human kites and dangling dancers. It said: The human being -- the individual -- is of no importance. The objectification of that child, her voice commodified for the purposes of the state, was the real ode to the motherland.
The absolute uniformity of movement we witnessed, meanwhile, was a vivid expression of the communist machine and the mandate to honor the whole over the individual.
A friend impressed by the opening ceremonies joked to me that the U.S. wouldn't be able to find that many fit individuals to man so many drums. Although she was sort of kidding -- in fact, China has an obesity problem -- she may have been onto something. That degree of robotic perfection is hard to imagine beyond the military in a country not lately known for rigid adherence to rules or patient with delayed gratification.
It's easier to command a cohesive performance from people who live under tyrannical rule than it is, say, in a democratically elected republic where obsessive-compulsiveness is considered a treatable pathology. Democracy is messy. And free people understand that being human means being imperfect, that protest is healthy, that cracks can be stepped on, sins forgiven -- and teeth fixed.
That's not to say that the Chinese performers didn't earn awe and applause. They were breathtaking. But it is useful to peek behind the thin veil that separates cooperation from coercion. Those 29 colossal "footprints of fire" that marched through the city sky began, after all, at Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 the Chinese government massacred hundreds of students and activists demonstrating for democratic reform.
Allowing China to host the Olympics may have been a wise decision for unexpected reasons. At the risk of falling under the spell of the greatest show so far on Earth, the world was given a glimpse not only of China's massive power, but also of her immense capacity for unfettered resolve.