Chinese soft power

The Chinese government decides to remind us that, whereas Italy is an institutionally weak state, China is the authentic institutional Third World, the real McCoy (or real Mackay if you prefer the likely Scottish origin of this term) of arbitrary, unprofessional and gratuitously nasty behaviour. I refer to the execution of a mentally-ill Briton, and an 11-year jail sentence for one of China’s best-known pro-democracy campaigners, which occurred in the same week.

 Akmal Shaikh, 53, a former London minicab manager, was executed in Urumqi for arriving in China with a suitcase containing 4kg of heroin. He had a long history of psychiatric problems. It appears that drug traffickers duped him into carrying the drugs and sent him to China saying it was part of a plan for him to fulfil his ambition of becoming a ‘pop star’. Arrested on arrival, Shaikh was given a 30 minute trial. During a statement he made during his also brief appeal, judges laughed at Shaikh’s nonsensical discourse and confirmed the death penalty, as this China law blog relates.

The 11-year jail sentence was handed down to writer Liu Xiaobo for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Liu is one of the main drafters of Charter ’08, the Chinese pro-democracy manifesto published two years ago and modelled on Charter ’77, which was launched by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in the midst of the Cold War. Liu was also given a very brief trial at which his lawyers were allowed almost no time to present a defence (the obvious defence is that Liu has done nothing other than exercise rights guaranteed by China’s constitution). The court condemned him at Christmas, presumably in the hope that foreigners were thinking about other things.

If this was the hope, it may have been misplaced, since the cases of both Liu Xiaobo and Akmal Shaikh have received worldwide media coverage. Not for a long time has China faced so much negative press in such a short period.

The Chinese government and its running dogs have shot back with what philosophers call ‘moral equivalence’, or the argument that ‘you’re just the same as we are, only from a different culture’. This might involve reference to the fact that the death penalty is used in the United States, or that all countries have to defend against attacks on state power. 

But these attempts at obfuscation  do not cloud what is stark reality. In the Shaikh case, the court refused to allow either an independent local doctor or a psychiatrist sent from Britain to meet or assess the defendant. China’s 1997 Criminal Code states that a person who is unable to recognize or control his own misconduct does not bear criminal responsibility. However there is no clear requirement for a court to order a psychiatric evaluation. The main justice-related role of psychiatric institutions in China continues to be as places in which to lock up sane people who have criticised the state.  

The Liu case is a reminder that China’s courts are subject to direction by the Communist Party’s  Central Political-Legal Committee, currently headed by former Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang, which determines the outcome of many ‘special’ cases and makes sure that others – such as challenges to the Party – are never admitted to trial. Liu’s 11-year sentence was not really a judicial decision at all. 

A selction of British press comment on the execution of Akmal Shaikh:

More information about Liu Xiaobo:

Deja vu all over again: the letter which Vaclev Havel and others connected with Charter ’77 tried to deliver to the Chinese embassy in Prague (as reprinted in the Washington Post)

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