Leading article: What this execution doesn't say about China and Britain

There are lessons to be drawn from the sad fate of Akmal Shaikh

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There was a dreadful inevitability about the execution of Akmal Shaikh in China, for all the 11th-hour visit by his cousins and last-minute intercessions by the British Government. But that inevitability does not detract from the abhorrence that we and many in Britain will feel about the application of the death penalty – either in general or in this case in particular. From what has become public, Shaikh appears to have been mentally unstable; an individual worthy of sympathy rather than the ultimate punishment, whose pleas in mitigation might have succeeded in many countries.

Any hope of clemency, though, was always going to be faint in China, where more than 1,700 were executed last year alone. China has a rougher justice than we do. That Shaikh was apprehended in Urumqi, in the troubled western region of Xinjiang, cannot have helped matters. Nor is China alone in Asia in imposing the death penalty for drug-smuggling, which is regarded there as one of the most heinous crimes.

For all these reasons it would have been an extraordinary gesture of humanity or diplomatic goodwill had the Chinese authorities overruled the court to commute the sentence. That they permitted two of Shaikh's cousins to pay a farewell visit was itself unusual and suggested that Beijing might not be completely deaf to the pleas from many miles away. In executing the first citizen of a European country for half a century, China surely understood the various messages that would send.

Summarised, these would be, first, that China, as a sovereign country, has the right to set its own laws and punishments. Second, that China will not look more kindly on foreigners who break the law than on its own citizens. And thirdly, Shaikh's fate will serve as a graphic reminder to visitors of what awaits them if – even perhaps inadvertently – they violate Chinese law.

From outside the country we are entitled to denounce the principle of capital punishment, as we do with those American states, chief among them Texas, that keep the death penalty on their books, and apply it. We are also within our rights to condemn China for its easy resort to execution. It cannot be that there are no miscarriages of justice; that no innocent people lose their lives.

But there are two conclusions that cannot, and should not, be drawn from Akmal Shaikh's case. The first is that China can be pressured into changing its policies to suit us. We have no better chance of persuading the Beijing authorities to abandon capital punishment than of persuading Texas or another US state to do the same. We can lobby when our own citizens are caught in the system, but we cannot demand that another jurisdiction bring its laws into line with ours. It is hypocritical to belabour China for its use of the death penalty while seeming to turn a blind eye to its use elsewhere.

The second false conclusion would be to treat Shaikh's execution as evidence of China's growing arrogance. To be sure, British ministers might have been in a stronger diplomatic position to plead for his life had they not so recently blamed China for blocking agreement at the Copenhagen climate summit. But there is nothing demeaning about making – even failed – representations on behalf of a citizen facing death abroad. Equally, no one should be surprised by Beijing's response. China guards its sovereignty jealously, not least because it was violated so relatively recently. This was less the arrogance of a rising power than evidence that China is still feeling its way in the wider world.

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