Execution of British NationalDrugs and China, 150 years later.
On December 29, 2009, China executed by lethal injection Akmal Shaikh, a British national convicted of smuggling 9 pounds of heroin into the country, despite repeated pleas for clemency due to Shaikh’s history of mental disturbance. Is this due process, or China defiant in the face of Western pressure? Lack of human rights, or cultural imperialism? Added to all this is the historical resonance of Britain, China, and drugs.
The execution of Akmal Shaikh has shocked the West, and Europe has vociferously decried this apparently ruthless treatment of a foreign national by the Chinese government.
Legally, Shaikh was treated no differently than a Chinese offender—possession of even 50 grams of heroin is a potentially capital offence in China, making a 4 kilogram payload an open-and-shut case in the eyes of the Chinese judiciary. In fact, the long stay of execution and access afforded relatives would suggest a certain level of special treatment, as most Chinese offenders convicted of a similar crime would be rushed from customs to cell to grave in a matter of weeks or even days. China’s zero-tolerance policy on drugs is a holdover from the Opium Wars, when the foreign-brokered narcotics trade destroyed China’s teetering economy and brought the Qing empire to its knees. The death penalty is liberally applied to drug offenses, as it has been for over a hundred years. It is overwhelmingly supported by the Chinese populace, who consider drug offenses almost tantamount to rape and murder in its potential to ruin lives. You won’t get clemency from the Chinese for drug smuggling, no matter what mental illness you suffer from. Our land, our laws.
Nevertheless, the world seems to feel Shaikh deserved clemency. Whilst I have no doubt his family felt his unstable mental state reason enough to commute his harsh sentence, I am much more skeptical that Shaikh’s mental condition had anything to do with Europe’s attitude to the execution. The reaction from European politicians is simple indignation disguised as moral outrage. We’re not surprised that the Chinese execute people for drug smuggling. We’re surprised at their audacity in executing an EU citizen.
Westerners are accustomed to special treatment while abroad—police turning a blind eye to our misdemeanors and at worst extraditing us with a slap on the wrist and a temporary travel ban. The very idea that a foreign country would actually execute one of us is anathema, and maybe twenty years ago it would have been unheard of, outside of war zones or the fog of revolution. Consequently, gay Europeans have traveled to Tehran with little fear of a government who regularly hang their Iranian counterparts, and British students have happily puffed away on cannabis in Malaysia whilst its citizens convicted of drug possession are publicly flogged. One law for locals, and another for tourists.
Not so in 2010, when China has finally realized it no longer needs to listen to what the West says. Like SkyNet becoming self-aware, China now appreciates just how powerless other countries are to influence its domestic affairs—look at the brushoff Obama’s human rights entreaties received from Chinese leadership, or Wen Jiabao’s neat sidestepping of China’s Copenhagen commitments. Priorities wise, being seen by its own people to treat criminals with equal severity is way above keeping the EU placated. China is scared of its own population, not foreigners.
It is nigh impossible to dredge any positivity from Akmal Shaikh’s sad story. But the lesson for all of us is that playing by China’s rules has surpassed economics. The Chinese have fired another palpable shot in their struggle for global supremacy, and all Europe can answer with is hot air.
The educational system in China focuses on the century of humiliation—in particular the devastation wrought by the introduction of opium by the British. The Communist Party ties its legitimacy to its ability to lead China toward a new, post-humiliation stage of history in which the Mainland reasserts its rightful place as the leading power in Asia and beyond. Thus the execution of Akmal Shaikh in Xinjiang last week should be understood as a domestic signal that a strong China will not allow brook the introduction of drugs on the Mainland by foreigners—especially the British.
Following the execution the Financial Times reported that it did not expect Mr. Shaikh’s death to undermine the political and economic ties between Britain and China. Although the British protested mightily, they were unwilling to take any retaliatory actions that might have imperiled British access to Chinese labor and markets.
The logical underpinning the British response of loud talk and no action mirrors the policies that the West has adopted vis-à-vis China since 1989. The West will condemn China, but when a confrontation erupts that might imperil Western access to China and its 1.3 billion potential consumers, the West invariably backs down. We saw this in Copenhagen, when China refused to allow international monitors to enter the country and blocked an agreement that would have set international emissions targets for 2050. China has come to believe that if it stands firm, the West would rather meet its demands than risk losing access to the Mainland.
While I am not suggesting that the execution of Mr. Shaikh was the opportune time for the West to begin standing up to China, I do believe that the time for action is rapidly approaching. As the Chinese grow more confident on the international stage, it is imperative that the West stand up for some of the principles its represents: human rights, democracy, and free trade. Indeed, the time has come for China to revalue its currency and thereby help bring the international economy back into equilibrium. If the United States needs to impose a tariff on all Chinese goods until Beijing takes such an action, so be it.