The recent execution of British citizen Akmal Shaikh by the People’s Republic of China has stoked once more the fires of criticism against the Chinese government, articulated by pressure groups, celebrities, the mainstream press and here in the Boar. A brief tour of western media websites will show the number of comment pieces on this topic far outweigh those of factual news, a ratio which should alarm anyone. It would seem that those with a desire to criticise China outnumber those who wish to investigate it. It is to this end that we would like to see a greater attempt to understand the situations in and decisions by foreign nations, especially those concerning the PRC.
Whilst pressure groups such as Amnesty International and Reprieve are, and ought to be, highly respected for their struggle to improve human rights worldwide, they are not unbiased organisations. Ultimately, they present their case based upon a western, Judeo-Christian morality which may not be shared around the world. Without coming to a judgement either in favour of western charities or Beijing, there are a number of issues that should be understood.
China historically has a much more complicated relationship with the drug trade than Britain, with enforced opium sales during the Qing dynasty. By the 1930s approximately 20% of the population were opiate consumers. The rise of communism and the authoritarian government under Mao Zedong took a hardline approach to the trade and consumption, resulting in a reduction of drug users. The economic opening up under Deng Xiaoping and the ready flow of personal wealth, foreign imports as well as increased unemployment gave new life to the trade of narcotics.
China currently faces its highest level of consumption since the 1930s, with just under one million officially registered drug addicts, however the government recognises the real total to be much higher. The first five years of the century saw a 35% increase in use, with heroin the drug of choice and 75% of HIV infections from intravenous drug users. 80% of the revenue comes from additional illegal means. As always, the poor and underprivileged suffer, and Xinjiang, China’s western ethnic minority province, is a major victim. It was here that Akmal Shaikh was caught with 6kg of high purity heroin. The facts of the case as they are known, including the particulars of Chinese law on the eligibility of bipolar disorder as a defence, are easily found without recourse to the use of editorial comment.
Concepts of proportional punishment, and the degree to which mental illness should mitigate that punishment are not universal. Whilst the West may feel the death penalty should only be employed, if ever, for murder, the point at which a crime involves the loss of life differs in the eyes of the Chinese legislature. The deaths from overdoses which no doubt would have resulted from such a large quantity of heroin as carried by Mr Shaikh, are attributed to the entire chain of events, from the individuals themselves to the original manufacturer. It is in this fashion Akmal Shaikh would have been deemed complicit in the deaths of an unknown and hypothetical number of Chinese.
Public support for the death penalty in mainland China ranges according to demographic and the crimes involved. For murder, this is above 75%, and around 55% for drug dealing; 70% believe it is unequally or unfairly applied. The use of the death penalty as a deterrent is important and this includes televised execution. It was clear that no one, Chinese or foreign, would receive leniency.
The People’s Republic of China is a young country. Its constitution and laws are barely 60 years old, and its economy just out of its teens. It struggles with a fledgling legal system, corruption, rapid economic growth and a population perhaps 25 times that of the UK. This is context, not apology, and certainly actions committed by the state are considered outrages by both western observers and Chinese citizens. Yet what damage is done by the West restraining their condemnation in pursuit of a complete understanding of the causes and background? Should the West not, before demanding others adopt our beliefs and methods, at least try to understand China’s?