In need of a little Olympic spirit
With a little unexpected help from people who would not normally or naturally be considered its friends, China has recently taken important strides to improve regional relations and become a global political, as well as economic, player. Now the unanswered question is whether President Hu Jintao can relax enough to make the best of the opportunity.
To do this he has to throw off many nationalist and dyed-in-the-wool communist demons. He also has to restrain the awesome Central Propaganda Department.
On the nervous eve of the Olympics, it may seem like the worst of times to raise these issues, but it could be the best of times. Can Mr Hu remember the celebration when Beijing won the Games in 2001, with impromptu letting off of firecrackers, flag waving and horn honking to mark a cherished international stamp of approval for modern China?
Official China's mood today is pessimistic, with fears of terrorist plots, the Dalai Lama and 'splittist forces', not to mention the assorted ghosts of Tiananmen Square lurking on every other corner. The Olympic torch was carried through Tibet with the place in virtual lockdown. It is to be hoped the rulers in Beijing do not believe the propaganda that all is happy in Tibet; but nor should they succumb to the dark fears that the rest of the world is out to get China.
If Mr Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao dare to look, they would realise there is plenty of evidence to the contrary and that the rest of the world - albeit nervously in some aspects - wishes the best for China's coming of age and integration as a world player.
If they talked to athletes, they would understand that the passion is to compete and win. Yes, there are fears about pollution, but this should be a chance to do something about the problem rather than pretend it does not exist, as the propaganda department instructed journalists.
When the massive earthquake struck Sichuan province, the propaganda department was quick off the mark, ordering, within a couple of hours, that no reporters would be allowed in the disaster zone.
But some enterprising reporters were quicker, or were prepared to take a chance, and began filing reports. Dreadful scenes of death and destruction, heroic rescues, and tearful survivors being brought out, went round the world - along with images of 'Grandpa Wen' with his loudhailer, calling desperately to survivors to hold on because help was on the way.
China's prompt massive rescue efforts were heralded as a caring and efficient government of the people, in sharp contrast to the Myanmar junta, which showed the pits of unfeeling by preventing aid being rushed to survivors of the cyclone there.
In Taiwan, the election of Ma Ying-jeou to the presidency by a sweeping majority has offered an opportunity of political engagement, as well as improving the already considerable economic and trade ties between the island and the mainland.
But it is relations with neighbour and old enemy Japan that have shown the most significant changes. The most symbolic event was the docking this week of the destroyer Sazanami at Zhanjiang naval base in southern Guangdong, the first visit by a Japanese warship to a Chinese port since the second world war. The ship was officially on a humanitarian mission carrying relief supplies for the earthquake survivors.
The visit followed hard on the heels of the agreement between China and Japan to jointly develop natural-gas fields in the East China Sea that both countries claim as their own territorial waters. That deal came soon after Mr Hu's 'warm spring' visit to Japan.
Equally significantly, though hardly noticed yet in Japan or China, Japan's former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who won a hardline reputation as an official prime ministerial visitor to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, published a paper in April calling for 'a new chapter in Japan-China relations'.
He invoked the example of ties between France and Germany. 'The time has come for Japan and China to take responsible actions for building a regional order from a broad perspective ... Like the relationship between Germany and France, we have a chance to become a lynchpin for peace and prosperity in Asia.'
Japanese cynics have pointed out that the offshore gas agreement covers only two of four fields, does not settle the sovereignty over the waters or define where China's economic zone stops and Japan's begins. The gas will go to China because a trough prevents direct piping to Japan.
On the Chinese side, there are considerably more questions - which is why Mr Hu has to examine whether he is a pessimist or an optimist, a nationalist or an internationalist, and head of a spoilt country or a responsible part of the world.
Hitherto, China has played the nationalist card as a way of ensuring unity. On the international stage, this is bringing criticism. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, accused China in a recent article of behaving with the mind of a small country that is not responsible for its impact on the global system. Even domestically, Mr Hu risks being outflanked by ultranationalists if he closes the door to discussion of unpalatable truths. An earlier proposed visit of a Japanese military aircraft with earthquake relief supplies was abandoned after Chinese internet opposition. The gas deal attracted demonstrations from Chinese who accused their government of selling out.
The China Youth Daily complained about these 'online Red Guards' saying they are infected by a 'populist virus' which is having a bad impact on China's intellectuals and bringing anti-democratic, anti- reform, anti-market thinking. Populism, it warned, was 'dynamite' that could explode and produce 'despots or violent upheaval'.
Mr Hu would be well advised to embrace the Olympic spirit - compete fiercely to win, but smile at the ups and downs of competition. China has already won by hosting the world, which wishes to celebrate China's successes and welcome it as a global force for good.
Kevin Rafferty has lived and worked as a journalist in Asia for 30 years