French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair protected Jiang Zemin from dissidents' criticism during the Chinese leader's recent European tour with such zeal they seem not to have asked an obvious question: Just why is this hardened despot so thin-skinned?

Chirac and Blair staged separate but similar for-profit national receptions for Jiang in late October that register on the meter of statecraft somewhere between distasteful and harmful. Most distressing was the willingness of the two European leaders to let the freedoms of their own societies be infringed to curry favor with a man who makes his living by suppressing his people.

The lengths to which French and British authorities went to prevent protesters unfurling banners or shouting slogans at Jiang lift official kowtowing for commercial advantage to a higher level than President Clinton's own unsavory excursions into this area.

Before visiting London, Paris and the French provinces, the Chinese president made clear that he would take great personal offense if a stray shout or banner somehow penetrated the protective bubble he demanded from his hosts. They complied with obsequious alacrity.

In London the police dusted off archaic laws forbidding demonstrations in the city's main parks to prevent Tibetan banners and photographs of the Beijing massacre of 1989 from being waved along the route the Communist Party boss traveled -- in a gilded horse-drawn carriage normally used by British royalty.

Later, police quickly hustled away a woman who attempted to hold up a photograph of her dissident son, who is imprisoned in China, within view of a riverboat on which Jiang was traveling. The Sunday Times of London reported that 10 people were arrested for demonstrating during the state visit. All were released without being formally charged.

In the French culinary capital of Lyons, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng attempted to shout a challenge down from a balcony to Jiang's party entering a nearby restaurant on Oct. 23. But French authorities ordered sirens turned on to drown out Wei's words.

The Chinese leader was apparently so overcome with emotion at this gesture of support, and Chirac's unprecedented invitation to a foreign leader to spend a weekend with him at his country estate, that he announced a new order of 28 Airbus jetliners at dinner. Chirac instantly relayed this sales success to the French press.

Any government has the duty to provide protection from protesters who threaten or harass visiting dignitaries, including Jiang or Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Khatami followed Jiang into Paris on Oct. 27 and needed the heavy protection he got. Physical security was not the issue in any of the cases mentioned here or, as far as I know, during any of the other mild protests against Jiang's visit to Europe.

The issue is why the British and French governments took steps to silence even faint expressions of the kind of criticism and questioning their own politicians look on as healthy and normal.

Blair and Chirac seem not to have thought through the patronizing insult they thus dealt to Chinese society. They implicitly agreed with Jiang's demand that he be allowed to portray his public welcome as one given to an all-mighty universally respected sovereign beyond any hint of criticism.

Can you imagine them agreeing to shield Clinton or Yeltsin or Schroeder in the same way? I can't either. But Jiang is a touchy potentate who might fly off the handle. Chinese society is too fragile for honest debate, even abroad. That is what the British and French welcomes say.

Those welcomes also say a lot about the continuity that exists in the attitudes of Europeans toward their former colonies in Asia and Africa. These ex-colonies are too often seen as sources of profit, not authentic countries riven by struggles between oppressors and oppressed.

The flavor of this commercial moment in diplomacy was captured nicely by Blair's trade and industry secretary, Stephen Byers, who told an audience in Shanghai in June that "American bombs that hit the Chinese Embassy [in Belgrade] have nothing to do with Britain," which he stressed was shut out of the targeting process on that raid.

So much for allied unity when business is at stake.

In Paris, the daily Le Monde marked Jiang's visit by publishing a harrowing two-page account of the decade-long persecution of Tibetan dissident Ngawang Sangdrol. Arrested as a 12-year-old, she has endured torture, jail and harassment without cessation for voicing a desire for freedom.

Such appeals should not be muffled by red carpets so thoughtlessly rolled out for a tyrant.