Akmal Shaikh: China’s final curtain?

2009 has ended on a bitter note for China: obstinate tactics and climate change disagreements in Copenhagen, an international outcry at the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, and today’s uproar over Akmal Shaikh’s execution in Urumqi.

This tragic story of a mentally ill taxi driver from Kentish Town who entered China with (unbeknown to him) 4kg of heroin has unsurprisingly sparked off the usual head-banging between China and the disapproving West: enraged condemnation came from Amnesty International and Reprieve, and various British ministers called for clemency on the basis of Shaikh’s mental condition.

But none of these outcries were heeded to, and Shaikh fell victim to the hardline politics of the CCP late this morning. The line of argument put forward by China’s Supreme Court was that it had never been provided with any documentation proving Shaikh had a mental disorder. Calls for clemency were futile, and the sad reality was that the exploited Shaikh ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But, moving away slightly from the dominant discourse of human rights and how far China is stuck in the dark ages, Michael White has claimed it is hypocritical for the West to denounce China’s move. White cites the history of Europe coercing China to open up to foreign trade, and the Opium Wars that led to unequal treaties between China and the British:

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.

White’s point is valid: China certainly has a knack for keeping painful memories close, and this is no exception. Her history provides a substantial amount of fuel to run the sovereignty engine I have often referred to: China dislikes being told what to do. As a result, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu responded with the usual line: the West has no right to comment on China’s judicial system.

As 2009’s curtain shuts and 2010’s opens, more voices are calling upon China to change her ways. She can no longer hide from the global magnifying glass that today revealed how she annually carries out 3/4 of the world’s executions.

But will she listen? Or will we still continue to bang heads whilst tragic victims get caught in the middle?


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