Why China Executed a Mentally Ill Briton

Most people forgot that China's autocratic leaders receive a mandate to rule from their citizens, even if it's implicit. If the Communist Party keeps its country safe, strong, and prosperous, Chinese citizens will limit dissent and tolerate repression. If not, file under Iran, circa January 2010. Seen in this light, China’s execution last week of British citizen Akmal Shaikh for smuggling more than eight pounds of heroin into China in 2007 was not the international diplomatic fiasco the press made it out to be; it was stroke of domestic political genius. At a time when Chinese law enforcement is looking especially feeble, Shaikh allowed them a little bit of swagger.

The Dec. 29 execution by lethal injection caused an uproar in Britain, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Shaikh's family, and other British government ministers had called on China to show clemency because of Pakistani-born Shaikh's history of mental illness. But the Chinese said Shaikh lacked proof of mental illness and declined to do their own tests. And the truth is that they didn't need to know; this execution was good for China. Afterward, to demonstrate it had no regrets, Chinese police arrested two Afghan and two more Pakistani heroin smugglers and said they might also get the most extreme penalty.

That's because, in the last six weeks, cases of deranged murderers have been all over the Chinese news. Police arrested a migrant worker suspected of hacking and burning to death at least 11 family members in Hunan province; a county government spokesperson said he had a history of mental illness, though many of his surviving relatives denied that allegation. The suspect for a stabbing spree that left six dead in Inner Mongolia committed suicide. A man in Hebei province killed seven of his relatives with a blunt instrument in order to take revenge for a family dispute; he then jumped off a building. Police captured a man suspected of murdering his parents after escaping from a mental hospital. A man allegedly killed five people at a New Year's party on the outskirts of Beijing; witnesses say they included his girlfriend and a pregnant woman.

In a country that likes to project a sense of omniscience to its citizens, these rampages—coming in on top of the other—have shaken Chinese confidence. Shaikh may in fact, as his family claimed, have been tricked into becoming a mule by drug dealers promising him a recording contract for his song "Come Little Rabbit," which he wrote to promote world peace. But by killing him, China is telling its citizens it's going to protect them the best way it knows how from the mentally unstable, whether they are carrying machetes or suitcases full of drugs.

At the same time, Beijing was able to cast Shaikh as more than just a lunatic. Because of his British family—and British agitation for his release—he also played into Chinese anxieties about imperialism and opiate smuggling. Referred to as a "national disgrace," every Chinese schoolchild learns that the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century were an embarrassing military defeat for China, leading to the cession of Hong Kong to Britain, widespread opium addiction, and British immunity in Chinese courts. This immunity, known as extraterritoriality, was especially galling because it essentially meant the Chinese legal system wasn't good enough for the British.

Authorities today still find ways to keep the memory of those outrages fresh.

Enter Shaikh. The Chinese Embassy in Britain said that, "In China, given the bitter memory of history and the current situations, the public has a particular and strong resentment towards [drug trafficking]." Chinese netizens have called this execution part of "the modern Opium Wars," and one lamented that "170 years later, Britain is again picking at China's wounds." The blog site Global Voices quoted another saying, "Today when the British drug dealer violated the law on our land, we can openly and rightfully punish him without any mercy. We don't need to follow the order of others anymore."

Which is why, in addition to being a law-and-order case, Shaikh's execution (the first of a European citizen in more than 50 years) is also a statement of Chinese judicial independence—not from the Communist Party but from the system of extraterritoriality in which Westerners disdained Chinese courts. Today, China's foreign-ministry spokesperson insisted, in the face of British protests, that China's judicial independence brooks no interference from the outside. On the Web site of the patriotic newspaper Global Times, a poll showed that 97 percent of more than 15,000 respondents supported the execution. Strained relations with Britain are a small price to pay to vindicate the national identity.