Great wall of ignorance
I have long been sceptical about Samuel Huntington's famous thesis about the clash of civilisations, not least because it was so enthusiastically embraced by autocrats like Lee Kuan Yew. But the mounting furore surrounding the Beijing Olympics is prompting a change of heart. Professor Huntington argued that the age of ideological conflict has given way to a new era of cultural conflict primarily between the civilisations of the east and west. This is precisely what we are seeing today as the Olympic torch makes its turbulent way across the world, provoking mutual incomprehension between the people of China and their western counterparts.
In China, there is a widespread belief that the nation is being attacked because other countries are jealous of its rise in the world and cannot accept its rightful place as a leader among nations. Indeed, it is hard to find even quite sensible people who do not believe that some kind of orchestrated plot is afoot to put down all things Chinese.
Meanwhile, in western countries, China-bashing is becoming quite acceptable. Both the Democratic presidential contenders in the United States have jumped on the bandwagon of fear over China's growing role in world trade. Opinion polls reflect a growing belief that China presents some kind of threat, not because it is nominally a communist country, but because it looks like an ominous bully flexing its muscles in tune to the swaying of the Olympic flag.
Like all crude caricatures neither view is without some substance. China is most certainly not well understood in the western world and has good reason to be cynical about the response to its growing prowess in world trade, derived from an ability to make goods western consumers desire at prices they can afford. And China is also right in thinking that many westerners have a superficial view of the Tibetan people, currently China's nemesis. The depiction of Tibetans as being a simple, peace-loving spiritual people is both patronising and partial.
Meanwhile, China should not be so ready to dismiss the fears of workers whose jobs are threatened by a flood of Chinese imports. Nor can accusations of unfair trading practices be entirely swept aside as China moves at a modest pace to provide access to its markets. And alongside these economic considerations there is genuine concern about China's human rights record - especially in Tibet, for the simple reason that Tibetans have risen in revolt and the world has seen it happening on their television screens. China's more sophisticated apologists argue that such humanitarian concerns are fake because, while criticising China, there is not equal criticism of human rights abuses elsewhere in the world.
This ranks alongside the logic of a doctor refusing to treat a cancer patient until he is able to cure cancer throughout the world. The reality is that you do what you can and it is rarely possible to do everything at once.
The less sophisticated apologists for China simply believe that conspiracies against the motherland abound: the Dalai Lama is depicted as a CIA agent, opponents of the government in Xinjiang are said to be part of a Muslim terrorist conspiracy, and so on.
This paranoid view of opponents is widely shared by Chinese people, who generally take a relaxed attitude to the propaganda pumped out by the official state media. Although it is largely nonsense it does have some slight grounding in fact because China human rights campaigners do indeed co-ordinate their activities - but their rivalries need to be seen to be believed - and indeed they do occasionally receive support from governments abroad. But none of this adds up to the giant conspiracy which looms large in the Chinese imagination.
China is playing with fire by stoking the flames of chauvinist anger. Giving an official nod to boycotts of French businesses, allowing bloggers - who are otherwise tightly controlled - to criticise foreign media organisations seen as being anti-Chinese, and retreating into insular Cultural Revolution rhetoric to lambast critics, plays well to the domestic audience. But, having laid the foundations for anti-foreign paranoia, how will the Chinese government explain to its people the need for more international co-operation as it strives to play a leadership role in world affairs?
Meanwhile, as politicians in the west scramble for votes, they should be wary of ignoring the shortcomings of their own economies by pointing a finger at China for selling too much to their citizens and investing too much in their companies. When push comes to shove, are Americans really ready to abandon Chinese imports and pay far higher prices for domestically produced goods? Whatever objective grounds exist for misunderstanding between China and the rest of the world, the fact remains that much of it is derived from cultural differences that are being dangerously exploited by politicians who should know better.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur