China’s decision to press ahead and execute Akmal Shaikh is repellant : for once Gordon Brown speaks for us all when he says, “I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted”.
But there are two things that have most forcibly struck me about this case: the impotence of the United Kingdom and its diplomatic effort, and China’s intemperate reaction to criticism.
From the FT.com report this morning
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said in Beijing that no country has the right to comment on China’s judicial sovereignty. “It is the common wish of people around the world to strike against the crime of drug trafficking. We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British government’s unreasonable criticism of the case. We urge the British to correct their mistake in order to avoid harming China-UK relations,’’ she said.
There is no mistake; and, whether China likes it or not, any country has the right to comment on China’s judicial sovereignty.
Whether as at Copenhagen, or as in this sad case, it seems that the unspoken excuse of the Chinese leadership for the actions it takes, or more often does not, is its domestic situation. That should not deter us from condemning it.
It is all too easy for lawyers in the West to be oblivious to the fact that the access to justice and the rule of law that, by and large, we enjoy in the Western democracies are not available to millions of our fellow citizens elsewhere in the world. With the Beijing Olympics now little over a fortnight away, Jamil Anderlini’s article in FT.com, Rewards and risks of a career in the legal system, offered a corrective to our all too often blinkered outlook.
In it he highlights the position in China, contrasting the very different professional experiences of Teng Biao, an activist lawyer on the outskirts of Beijing, and Tao Jingzhou, a partner in Jones Day’s Beijing office.
The realities of living in a totalitarian state also lend uncertainty to the legal system. Opportunities abound for powerful individuals to intervene, says He Weifeng, an outspoken legal professor at Peking University. “Actually, there is no real legal system in the western sense in China,” he declares.
Enforcement of existing legislation is often lax – something that becomes apparent when you compare China’s excellent environmental laws with the reality outside the window or read the country’s constitution, which guarantees all citizens freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of political association. In criminal cases and high-profile civil cases, political interference is rife, while in smaller cases bribing judges and prosecutors is the norm.
“The biggest problem with China’s legal system is that politics and the law are not separate,” says Mr Teng. “An independent judiciary is not possible under the current system because the law is regarded as a tool to serve the party.”
More disturbing news from Tibet. An interesting post by James Forsyth in Coffee House, suggesting it may be time (and notwithstanding realpolitik) to think about whether we should boycott Beijing 2008. He links to Vaclav Havel’s letter in Comment is free on Guardian.co.uk, which is headed “Asking China to exercise restraint in Tibet is not enough: the international community must use its influence to halt human rights abuses”, and finishes
“Merely urging the Chinese government to exercise the “utmost restraint” in dealing with the Tibetan people, as governments around the world are doing, is far too weak a response. The international community, beginning with the United Nations and followed by the European Union, Asean, and other international organisations, as well as individual countries, should use every means possible to step up pressure on the Chinese government to allow foreign media, as well as international fact-finding missions, into Tibet and adjoining provinces in order to enable objective investigations of what has been happening; release all those who only peacefully exercised their internationally guaranteed human rights, and guarantee that no one is subjected to torture and unfair trials; enter into a meaningful dialogue with the representatives of the Tibetan people.
Unless these conditions are fulfilled, the International Olympic Committee should seriously reconsider whether holding this summer’s Olympic games in a country that includes a peaceful graveyard remains a good idea.”
For a less reverent comment, see Robert Shrimsley in today’s FT, Carrying a torch for China in Tibet. This imagines all you need to know about our lords and masters (?) in Europe.
Some things don’t change, and this remains true of China. However hard the West seeks engagement, and despite the clear importance of China in global economic terms (see this week’s Economist Special Report), we remain in different worlds. Nothing has pointed this up so starkly than the unfolding violence in Tibet, and the response of China, caught between what it probably would like to do (Tianmen Square Mk. 2) and still may, and what it can, given the Beijing Olympics. In FT.com, Richard McGregor reports:
A dispatch from Xinhua, the state news agency, over the weekend, called the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a “master terror maker” who had willed his supporters in Lhasa to stage violent demonstrations.
“Now the blaze and blood in Lhasa has unclad the nature of the Dalai Lama, it’s time for the international community to recheck their stance towards the group’s camouflage of non-violence, if they do not want to be willingly misled,” the Xinhua report said.
Such hectoring missives typify the Chinese response, which has been to place the protests firmly in the context of the wider sovereignty dispute, the most sensitive issue for the ruling communist party.
With the Beijing 2008 only months away, and a US Presidential election campaign gathering steam, what is now happening in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet will have much wider repercussions, whether the Chinese like it or not. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama walks a difficult line:
“The Tibet nation is facing serious danger. Whether China’s government admits or not, there is a problem,” he said at a press conference at Dharamsala, India, on Sunday. “(But) the Olympics should not be called off.”