Leading article: A disturbing prelude to an era of growing Chinese power

Draconian sentences highlight Beijing's indifference to democratic values

At the end of a decade in which China has become a global power, it is making headlines for the wrong reasons. First, it was accused of wrecking the climate change talks in Copenhagen. Then there was the savage sentence meted out to the courageous dissident Liu Xiaobo. His so-called crime has been to persistently call for constitutional change and reform of the one-party system, for which he has just been handed a swingeing 11-year sentence.

And now there is the firing squad awaiting the Briton Akmal Shaikh this week. Unless Beijing reacts at last to repeated pleas for clemency that have come from his relatives and from the Foreign Office, he may have the unhappy distinction of becoming the first European to be executed in China in half a century.

The crime of which he is convicted, smuggling hard drugs, is grave. But it is a poor reflection on Chinese justice that their courts have neither accepted as an extenuating circumstance, nor apparently even investigated, what appears to be sound evidence that Mr Shaikh suffers from the delusions that often accompany bipolar disorder. His execution would be a terrible stain on China's reputation.

Barely noticed has been a round of sentences that call attention to another disagreeable aspect of China's justice system: its harshness towards minorities. Christmas Day saw another five death penalties handed down to Uighurs for their role in the ethnic riots that shook Xinjiang province in summer. That brings to 22 the number of death penalties ordered in connection with the riots since September, nine of which have already been carried out.

We must hope Mr Shaikh secures a last-minute reprieve. If not, his case, alongside that of Mr Liu and those of the Uighurs earmarked for execution, serve as a reminder that China's emergence as a world power, accelerated by the global financial crisis, comes with strings attached.

Most people are rightly impressed with China's economic resurgence and its cultural self-confidence. But all too often we in the West assume that the democratic values we hold dear will somehow spontaneously ignite in China as an inevitable by-product of growing wealth. It seems increasingly clear that this is not the case. The Chinese authorities have no intention of permitting the emergence of a democratic debate, and will continue to pursue the same combination of economic liberalism and political authoritarianism that have served their purpose to date.

Worryingly, as we enter an era in which America's power seems set to wane while that of China's rises, this idiosyncratic model will increasingly be seen as worthy of emulation. This is already the case in the Far East in countries like Vietnam, where the regime is clearly bent on managing affairs according to a Chinese recipe. But as Chinese influence spreads through trade and loans, notably in Africa, China's authoritarian model is likely to become an object of admiration and imitation there as well.

Western democracies must play their hands carefully if they are not be outflanked. Our governments must not begrudge the scale of China's achievements. But democracies must not be cowed into silence over the fate of individuals or groups crushed beneath the state machine. This decade will be the one in which the Chinese consolidate their position on the world stage. We should welcome their arrival with a smile – but keep our eyes wide open as we fight for the beliefs that we cherish.