For a pithy summary of the mysterious world view of the Chinese government, consider Beijing's contrasting reactions to the recent behaviour of Bashar al-Assad and the Dalai Lama.
On the one hand you have Mr Assad, as despicable a butcher as you are likely to find in the Middle East, who has enjoyed the explicit and implicit support of the Chinese government for months; even now that Beijing has backed Kofi Annan's peace plan, it will go no further than expressing a hope that the issue will be resolved in a "fair, peaceful and appropriate way".
Then there's the Dalai Lama, a man whose latest book offers tips on meditation and who last year cheerily volunteered to give up political power over the Tibetan people. China views this sort of thing as considerably more suspicious than being at the top of a military that is murdering civilians in cold blood every day. Accordingly, on Saturday, a piece of commentary on the state-operated news agency noted how remarkably the Dalai Lama's comments on Tibet "remind us of the cruel Nazis during the Second World War", and added: "How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!"
In case you are struggling to summon to mind the specific genocide for which the Dalai Lama has been responsible, yesterday the Chinese government had another pop. The latest spate of self-immolations by Tibetan protesters, it declared, were not so much the expression of a people's anguish at their continuing subjugation as they were the result of the "single-handed" plans of that renowned modern-day Nazi – this is the Dalai Lama we're talking about, just to remind you – and his associates.
The Chinese foreign office official who made these claims neglected to produce his presumably extensive evidence for their veracity. But the puzzled observer is forced to ask: if an expatriate religious figurehead without any recourse to sanction or force can make people set themselves alight against their will, why has China found it so difficult to believe a dictatorial president-for-life could order his soldiers to kill their own people?
The answer to this question will probably come on the same day that our leaders find their voices to defend the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people against the slanders of the Chinese authorities. And that awful Western silence – understandable, perhaps, in the light of the necessity of Chinese support in the Middle East, but no less awful for that – points to a terrible truth. The photographs of desperate Tibetans burning themselves for their cause may make our front pages. But for as long as China knows it will pay no political price for its actions in Tibet, they will burn themselves in vain.Follow @archiebland Reuse content