If all politics is local, the Olympic torch relay should be a triumph for the Chinese government. After all, there is nothing more certain to get Chinese backs up than the kind of protests against the flame’s passage through London, Paris and San Francisco in recent days.

Such demonstrations enhance rather than diminish support for a government rallying to defend itself against what it depicts as an affront to China’s pride and dignity. The same goes for any form of boycott of the Games themselves in August, be it of the opening ceremony or other events.

Beijing, however, is feeling anything but triumphant at the moment. The mood in the capital is sour and sullen and thick with anger at western media and governments for their criticism of China’s behaviour in Tibet and the way in which the issue has cascaded into the Olympics.

Only an arch-conspiracy theorist would suggest that the unfolding disaster of the Games could have been scripted by Beijing to shore up support for the Chinese state. The government and the ruling Communist party that stands behind it have much more to gain from a successful Olympics than from one marred by a bitter stand-off with the west. So too, counter-intuitively, do the protesters.

Beijing’s Games’ organisers may have been asking for trouble by sending the torch overseas on what they described, prematurely, as a “journey of harmony”. The relay offered many people with grievances against China an irresistible, high-profile chance to make their point, which is fair enough.

But the demonstrators should not delude themselves that they are giving the Chinese government a bloody nose along the way. The opposite may be true. Such demonstrations only strengthen the bond between sections of the ruling party and the most rabid nationalistic elements in the country.

Much of the most virulent anti-foreign sentiment, of the kind that floods internet bulletin boards in China, is from young people who missed the worst of the ruling party’s destructive political campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. Their experience of Communist party rule, at least in urban areas is of, for the most part, rising living standards. Schooled in the history of China’s century of humiliation by western powers, they are also deeply sensitive to perceived foreign slights.

China will become more nationalistic in the future as the country grows and prospers. The difficult challenge for foreigners is to create and sustain an alternative narrative to the one that seems entrenched in the minds of young Chinese, one that encourages the country’s successes without diluting the west’s own principled critique of traditional communist rule.

The Games are, of course, political, but they are more than that and any political response needs to take that into account. It is no wonder that Liu Xiaobo, a brave dissident who has been alternately jailed and under house arrest since 1989, told Der Spiegel, the German magazine, that a boycott “wouldn’t be a good way to punish China”.

"If the Games fail, human rights will suffer. The government would stop paying any attention to the rest of the world. I personally think: we want the Games and we want human rights to be respected," Mr Liu told the magazine.

Chinese political culture is not given to introspection at the best of times. The system’s intolerance of views that run against the prevailing diktats of the party’s propaganda ministry has only deepened in recent weeks. This is not an argument against protests, just a reminder of how they reinforce the impulse of the system to tighten.

A China that was much poorer and less of a pivotal player in global diplomacy survived years of western sanctions and pressure of different kinds in the wake of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and elsewhere in 1989. There is no reason to suggest its reaction will be any different now.

After five straight years of 10 per cent-plus growth, the political leverage that China wields from its economy and industrial and consumer market is also greater than ever. The foyers of five-star hotels in Beijing and Shanghai are awash with bullish multinational chief executives. The US may be in, or on the brink of, recession but in China the biggest problem of many foreign companies remains capacity constraints, not falling orders.

Is there any way in the short term to bridge the gap between the west and China in the aftermath of Tibet and the torch relay protests? Probably not, but there may be ways to stop them widening.

China and the grandees at the International Olympic Committee will not countenance in their public pronouncements any disruption of the international leg of the torch relay. But it is clear that it should be cancelled. Certainly, any cancellation amounts to a loss of face for China. But with another 15-odd countries on the agenda and about three to four weeks to go, allowing the torch relay to go on might be much worse. Some breathing space is needed to try to renew a dialogue ahead of the Games. At the moment, there is none in sight.

Send your comments to Richard McGregor at rmcg@uninet.com.cn

More columns at www.ft.com/mcgregor

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