There's a British comedy routine in which German soldiers in World War II sitting around a campfire start to notice that a human skull is incorporated into the insignia on their caps. "What do skulls make you think of? Death, cannibals, beheadings, pirates," says a soldier. And then the realization dawns on him. "Are we the bad guys?"

It's the sort of conversation that we hope will happen in China over the course of the Olympics and in their wake.

It might go something like this: "Hey, you know how we call ourselves 'Children of the dragon' and force families to kill their kids? Other countries feature eagles or koalas and freedom. Are we healthy?"

Americans have always had a quiet and wholly appropriate reverence for Chinese culture.

From The King and I to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, our popular entertainment has envied primal Eastern civilization. From Pearl S. Buck to Amy Tan, our fiction has explored the country's villages and introduced us to its people. We are charmed by fortune cookies and impressed by Buddhist wisdom. We take out Chinese when we're dating, and we pick out china when we get engaged.

There is great beauty in the Chinese culture and its people. There are great virtues as well.

The determination and perseverance of the Chinese people survived decades of hardship and helped them succeed where other nations saddled with Marxism have collapsed.

But with that determination has come a kind of ruthlessness that is a great threat to the rest of the world, given China's immense geopolitical ambitions.

Chinese elite call the country Tian-Xia, which means "all under heaven." In the view of the nation's ancient philosophers, the emperor of China was nominally the ruler of "all under heaven." That is, the entire world. Other nations? Rulers were said to derive their power from the emperor, just as, in Christian thought, political authority is derived indirectly from God.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics were beautiful and extraordinary as they traced the history of the Chinese people. But once you realize that the Chinese government operates, at least to some degree, under the assumption that the Chinese are a master race, the message is considerably darker.

The extravaganza was propaganda, pure and simple. For instance, children were generously incorporated in the presentation, particularly in the segments about modern-day China. And yet China is famous for its draconian one-child policy. In effect, this is a program of genocide and sterilization that touches every single family in the country. The blood of the children, born and unborn, killed by the modern Chinese regimes is immeasurable.

Particularly, the opening ceremony seemed to feature little girls. But in China, little girls are becoming rare indeed. Families who can only have one child tend to want a boy. In what the American media used to call "gendercide," girls are far more likely to be aborted, killed as infants or put in orphanages.

Human-rights experts told us in last week's issue how the Olympics actually forced China to crack down more on dissidents, and not just dissidents. Catholics in the underground Church have been persecuted for fear that they might speak out. Clerics are in prison. The government is taking no chances that its "enemies" will tell the world what is happening.

China's self-conception and the brutal actions it justifies should be frighteningly familiar to the post-World War II and Cold War West.

When we trade with China, we're thinking in economic terms. But what are the Chinese elite thinking? We speak of how our trade with China will open the country to Western ideas of freedom, justice and democracy. But China is very aware of its sheer size and the power that its mammoth population gives it. How likely is it that "all under heaven" will undergo a political metanoia just because its workers' paradise is churning out Dark Knight toys?

When one late-night comedian quipped, "Imagine how much those Opening Ceremonies would have cost if China didn't have slaves?" the comment was more truth than joke.

In America's present-day culture-of-death phase, is our command of freedom, justice and democracy great enough to attract converts in the East anyway?

Chances are, the opposite is true. Over the past 25 years of trade with China, we have become much more like them than they have become like us. Our family sizes have shrunk almost to their one-child limit. Abortion has become as important a value to many of our politicians as it is for theirs. And while China's abuse of religious rights hasn't abated, our commitment to religious freedom has, from crèches in public places to the dismantling of the conscience rights of doctors and the freedom of Catholics to run adoption agencies.

Think of China as a village in thrall to a dragon. In classical literature, weak people always deal with dragons the same way: by appeasing them. That plan always works to the benefit of the dragon, not the villagers (or its maidens), and America should reject that strategy.

Is it a hopeless situation? Certainly not. The faith has flourished against greater odds elsewhere, and great things are happening in China.

Many in the West are still jaded about Christianity. They are recovering slowly, but in China, Christianity is a new and exciting phenomenon. The government is alarmed by its rise, calling it "Jesus fever" and trying to beat it down. But we know what happens when you try to beat down Christianity. A religion that features its crucified founder as its unfurled banner doesn't give up very easily.

Pray for the Church in China, and pray that its missionaries will one day spread the faith from Beijing with as much flair and imagination as the city has spread the Olympic message.