Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and and People’s Liberation Army choreographer Zhang Jigang created a dazzling show to open the 2008 Olympics.It communicated Chinese history and culture to the world on a grand scale.

This was not the work of submissive underlings kowtowing to the ruling elite’s ideas on culture and artistic expression. It was utterly unlike anything that could have come out of Mao’s China. We didn’t see hordes of workers and peasants dressed in drab waving red flags and singing about the glories of Communism. Instead, we saw an utterly modern show that was also uniquely Chinese.

The two Zhangs must have had almost complete control over the project for it to come together with such clarity of artistic vision. And therein lies a lesson that China’s rulers may be learning; free people can create far more than enslaved people.

The party may also have learned another lesson. If you want to present a new face to the world, then make it a clean one. The one element marring the games is the extraordinary levels of air pollution China today.