China Ink

The definitive media storm

Briton Akmal Shaikh was executed for heroin smuggling on December 30th

A matter of sovereignty, above all else?

Stop ignoring the laws and dignity of developing nations, fumed Xinhua. Foreign criticism only highlights European chauvinism, agreed the China Daily. Shaikh, like anyone else, had to be held accountable for breaking Chinese laws.

Others drew on historical lessons, especially after Beijing issued a statement claiming that “strong resentment” about illegal drugs in the country was based on “the bitter memory of history” of Britain’s role in enforcing the import of opium in the past. The headline in the web edition of the Guangming Daily – “China No Longer an Amusement Park for Crimes of Foreigners” – made the point more forcibly.

China is impervious to lectures from Europeans on the morality of the drugs trade, admitted the Guardian. And her refusal to grant clemency was resolute, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Shaikh’s case was raised 10 times at a prime ministerial and ministerial level, and 27 times by British officials.

But the BBC thought that granting the request might have looked like an acknowledgement that proper procedures had not been followed. The broadcaster also noted that China does not welcome foreign scrutiny of its judicial process, which it regards as very much an internal affair.

But wasn’t Shaikh mentally ill?

Under Chinese law, punishments can be reduced or avoided if criminals are unable to recognise or control their misconduct. But the domestic media insisted that there was no evidence to support such a diagnosis. The accused himself never raised it as an issue, and no medical records were available to confirm that it should be considered as a factor.

Quite probably, argued the UK newspapers, who documented various examples of Shaikh’s delusional behaviour, including his claims to have masterminded the July 2005 London bombings, and his recording of a song, titled Come Little Rabbit, that he believed would lead to world peace. But requests for a mental health examination were rejected, reports Reuters. A psychiatrist who travelled from Britain to examine Shaikh was rebuffed.

Still, most Chinese support the death penalty…

The Chinese media rolled out a selection of ‘legal experts’ to make this point extensively. There was support for the specific outcome in the Shaikh case too. An online survey taken by the Global Times saw 98.8% of 3,500 respondents agreeing with the court’s decision. Most editorials chose to pick up on the surprisingly precise statistic that the 4.3kg of heroin he smuggled in was “enough to cause 26,800 deaths” too. Meanwhile, in a related development, Liaoning province has become the country’s first to replace the firing squad in favour of what local media term more ‘humane’ lethal injections.

Many in the UK are similarly inclined to support capital punishment, wrote Tim Collard (a retired British diplomat to China) in the Daily Telegraph. He thought around 70% of Britons are in favour of the death penalty, although that figure would be in the high nineties in China.

Reader responses in the tabloids often seemed to agree with Mirror columnist Tony Parsons, who pointed out that few Chinese would envy Britain’s “drug-raddled, crime-infested, gang-banged cities”. The Chinese “do things differently over there” but who are “the real barbarians”, Parsons asks?


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