Monday's image of a protester accosting a torch-bearer in a wheelchair in Paris, he and others warn, could become the inverse of the iconic image of a Tiananmen protester staring down the tank. It could result in stirring popular nationalism and drawing Chinese people closer to their government, he says.
While military or major economic responses would be beyond the pale, Beijing might decide to be less cooperative on the margins of its bilateral relationships with the West.
What should Western leaders do?
The margins are also where Western leaders are feeling pressure to take action, says Jacques deLisle, an East Asian studies expert at the University of Pennsylvania.
"We have seen a deemphasis on human rights [in US-China relations] in recent years, much of it for good reason," he says. "The problem is, getting the balance right again has become very difficult because China has become less willing to listen to this kind of criticism as it's beginning to feel its oats as a major power."