Why denouncing China is hypocritical
There are good reasons why China is likely to be impervious
to lectures from Europeans on the morality of the drugs
I'm sorry too that the Chinese have just executed Akmal
Shaikh, an apparently mentally ill Briton. He was clearly
an expendable drugs mule, cynically exploited by
traffickers who are still alive and well today.
But I'm also sorry about the international clamour to
denounce China, which sounds at least as hypocritical and
insensitive as the act itself. Can Gordon Brown and David
Cameron – to name but two – hear what they sound like?
Let's start with the basics. Most of us (not all) deplore
the drugs trade – from cultivation to distribution and sale
– which is illegal in most countries (not all) and has
spawned a huge and lucrative global industry.
Some think the "cure'' – the worldwide campaign against the
trade – worse than the disease since it underpins major
criminal enterprises on all continents. It has long been
the case, though I would personally hesitate to risk
legalising it and hoping for the best.
Different countries tackle the problem in different ways.
China, which has a rising drugs problem as it enters the
modern consumer era, is one of those which takes a tough
line. As the Guardian's Q&A points out today it is one of
the few crimes to attract a mandatory death sentence.
Enter poor Akmal Shaikh, who seems to have gone off the
rails in middle age after leading a quiet family life as a
north London taxi driver. Someone who struck acquaintances
as very odd after he emigrated to Poland with grandiose
ideas, he falls into bad company which exploits his
So he ends up landing in Urumqi, northern China, in 2007
and being caught at the airport with 4kg of heroin in his
luggage. He told police he knew nothing about it. It's a
tragically familiar story and, in his case, it's probably
In the wake of his execution the Chinese authorities sound
quite angry at criticism of their judicial system. Shaikh
had a fair trial, complete with interpreter, they say. He
was deemed fit to plead.
Mental illness? Ah, that's a tricky one. But it's easy to
see how the Chinese might take a very different view of how
it is defined. So do many jurisdictions – as we all know –
on this and many other legal issues: "self defence",
"crimes of passion", "third degree homicide", "honour
killings", lots of scope for moral relativism in all of
Reprieve and other admirable campaigns which fight for the
rights of prisoners in foreign jurisdictions have the
virtue of consistency. Thus they oppose the death penalty
wherever it exists, including the US, where it was
abolished as a "cruel and unnatural punishment'' in 1972 –
and restored in 1976 when the supreme court changed its
Though they are pretty half-hearted about it compared with
China's 1,700 or so known executions (they are reported to
sell body parts for medical use) a year, southern US states
As governors both George W Bush and Bill Clinton – whom so
many of us admire – signed off on questionable executions
of vulnerable, marginalised people like Akmal Shaikh. A
high proportion of the 3,000 or so Americans on Death Row –
few actually executed – are black. Britain? We last
executed a man called Peter Allen at Walton jail on 13
August 1964 for murder – three years before the final
abolition of the death penalty.
Not so long ago really (our last Etonian PM, Sir Alec
Douglas-Home, was in No 10) and, as China's very smart UK
ambassador has probably told Beijing, capital punishment
still commands as much enthusiasm here 40 years later as it
does in China, ie lots.
So there's a sovereignty issue. China – like the US – has
the right to pass and implement its own laws and
governments, governments-in-waiting in Cameron's case,
should pause before getting too mouthy. Apparently 27
representations were made to China by Britain over the past
two years – mostly quietly, I assume, which is always the
But the execution took place during the Christmas news
lull: hence the sudden high profile. Thank goodness Ivan
Lewis, the junior foreign office minister put up to talk
about it today, saidL "I'm not going to make idle threats"
– or we might be starting 2010 going to war with China.
Talking of which, the really toe-curling fact, of which
neither Dr Gordon Brown with his PhD in history, nor David
Cameron with his 1st in PPE should be ignorant, is
When Europeans started forcing the reclusive China of the
late Ming and Qing dynasty to open its doors to trade in
the 16th and 17th century the visitors wanted more Chinese
goods – all that tea, silk and lovely porcelain – than the
Chinese wanted of ours.
Sounds familiar? What the Chinese would accept was silver,
a better bet than the US dollars they now hold in such vast
quantities. This was unsustainable and in the 19th century
the British East India Company hit on the idea of importing
Indian opium to China – though it was banned by imperial
I hope you've spotted where I'm heading. If not here's
Wiki's starter kit on the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60
which culminated in the so-called "unequal treaties" and
the eventual overthrow of the Qing in 1912.
Result: China was forced to accept the trade with
devastating social consequences. In fairness I should add
that the stuff was legal in Britain at the time – as
readers of Victorian novels can confirm. The Chinese
governor Lin Zexu became a hero for opposing the trade – as
did young William Gladstone at Westminster.
All the same, it is a pretty shameful story. Perhaps it
slipped your memory? It certainly hasn't slipped theirs and
is still unravelling: they only got Hong Kong back in 1997
and have never rebuilt the burned Summer Palace at Beijing
– their Windsor.
So, one way or another, poor Akmal Shaikh was the wrong man
in the wrong place. But China is likely to be impervious to
lectures from Europeans on the morality of the drugs trade.
As the world's rising power it's unlikely to be lectured
anyway, but that's another story – one we'll rapidly have
to get used to. No declaration of war this week, please