(Shanghai - by flickrgao)
Like most people, I was appalled at China's execution of a mentally ill British citizen Akmal Shaikh for drug smuggling earlier this week. China's human rights record is a shameful one, and it did itself no favors by showing no mercy to Shaikh.
But there is a wider picture to look at involving international power plays and subtle power shifts amongst the world's biggest economies. And in the scheme of things, China doesn't come out as the bad guy.
China's extraordinary growth rate over the past couple of decades has propelled it to virtually equal status as the United States, Japan and Europe. It's economy has grown around 10% per year for the last 30 years, and it doesn't look to be slowing down. Having suffered for many years as a playground for imperial powers (the British and the Japanese), China is finally at a point where it can assert itself on the international playing field with some serious force.
China is now the largest owner of US Treasury debt ($800.5 billion as of July this year) and now wields considerable leverage over the world's biggest super power. The US can no longer act as it pleases and must consider China's interests whenever it makes a decision. Chinese politicians have perfected the art of soft power, and they are not afraid to use it. Here's Noam Chomsky on how China deals with relations with US enemy Iran:
The US wants the world to boycott
Iran in pursuit of US policies. Europe sort of shakes its fist, but
Europe pretty much backs off. So when the US warns countries not to
invest in Iran, European investors – banks and so on – tend to pull
out, not entirely, they find some ways to get around it, but they do
pretty much pull out.
But China on the other hand doesn’t
pay any attention. They just go ahead and do what they want to do –
they have been there for 3000 years…The idea that there is a
potentially powerful state that cannot easily be intimidated is very
threatening to people want to rule the rule the world.
The execution of Akmal Shaikh was another use of indirect aggression, showing the West that China doesn't care what it thinks and will do what it wants. Britain is now fairly irrelevant when it comes to power plays on the world stage. The financial crisis has severely weakened London status as the world's financial hub, and given its status as a US poodle (thanks to Tony Blair's blind allegiance to George Bush), it doesn't have anywhere near the power it once wielded.
The recent environmental talks in Copenhagen saw the US and Britain try to pin the blame for its collapse on China, when in reality, it was mostly the United States (Obama gave China an ultimatum he knew they could not accept while offering zero in exchange). Smarting from the stitch up, China is exacting its revenge using other means.
China's slap in the face to Britain tells the rest of the world that it will reply in kind to acts it deems belittling. And if Western leaders continue to treat China as if it were a third rate super power, their own power will continue to erode as the red giant uses its considerable resources to fight back.
We have been warned.