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Western cant at China beggars belief

AKMAL Shaikh is -- or rather, was -- the first European citizen to be executed in China in 50 years. During that time, the Chinese authorities have done to death tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of their own citizens without provoking a fraction of the same outrage which the death by lethal injection of this 53- year-old father of five, convicted two years ago of smuggling heroin into the country and finally executed last week, brought in its wake.

Actually, that's not fair. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have long been critical of the record of the People's Republic of China. It is the media which has largely chosen to ignore Chinese abuses, while emoting loudly every time the switch is pulled on some serial murderer in an electric chair in Huntsville, Texas. As a result, the general public could be forgiven for thinking that it is America which does away with the most prisoners each year, when in fact our Yankee cousins are, in per capita terms, in the halfpenny place in that particular department, trailing well behind their Muslim counterparts in Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Asian countries such as North Korea.

That kind of whataboutery isn't very productive, admittedly. Nothing would ever be said or done if, every time someone raised an important issue about human rights, someone else instantly shot back: "Yeah, but what about X?" (insert your own random hobby horse).

There's nothing necessarily wrong either with being more concerned with the fate of one's own fellow citizens than with anonymous strangers, however unjustly treated, on the other side of the world. It's human nature to care more about those to whom one can put a name, face and story. The case against Akmal Shaikh also had more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.

Even so, the hypocrisy on this side of the world in response to his tragic death has been staggering. The fact that China executes thousands of people every year in similarly dubious circumstances, harvesting their organs for transplants in the process and then burying them in secret, didn't stop us from going along wholeheartedly with the festival of fun that was the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

That year, Amnesty International estimates that China killed approximately 1,700 people, out of a worldwide total number of executions of 2,390. The true figures are believed to be much higher, since the statistics are a state secret.

This was well down on other years, when the number of executions has topped 10,000, but then China was putting on its best face to a world which had come to Beijing to party, not to have the mood spoiled by the sound of gravedigging. And if it's not cultural appeasement, then it's the economy, stupid, as Western governments keep quiet about Chinese human rights abuses in order not to frighten away all those precious yuan.

We're just as bad. President McAleese troops around the world, waffling about Ireland's deep concern for moral values, but who cares how many hands or heads they chop off as long as the Arabs love our beef? Trade is all. Which is why Irish female politicians cover themselves up and sit quietly, speaking only when spoken to, like good little girls, on economic delegations to Saudi Arabia; and why China was Brian Cowen's first overseas trade mission on becoming Taoiseach, when the closest he came to criticising his hosts on human rights was admitting that "our angles of vision are different". That's telling 'em.

But, suddenly, we're supposed to be outraged at the execution of Akmal Shaikh? It's bizarre. Turn on Morning Ireland to hear that another drug dealer has been shot dead in a feud in north inner city Dublin, and the response

of most listeners is a shrug of indifference, because who cares if drug dealers kill one another, right?

And if the garda heavy gang duffed up some ne'er-do-well in the line of duty, there'd be private congratulations at another scumbag taken off the streets. But when the Chinese courts put an end to the life of a drug smuggler, we're meant to find it uniquely shocking and start sending

letters of protest. His supporters insisted that Akmal Shaikh deserved special treatment because he was suffering from bipolar disorder -- or manic depression, as it used to be called. The fact that the British government, who took the lead in this case because the former taxi driver grew up in the UK, failed to provide medical evidence for this alleged illness was, conveniently, overlooked. Also, being bipolar doesn't turn a law-abiding man into a drug smuggler overnight.

Nor was Shaikh's story of being the innocent dupe of Asian drug smugglers who had lured him to the People's Republic in the hope of becoming a pop star exactly convincing. Though what else can you say when you'recaught at the airport with four kilos of heroin in hidden compartments in your suitcase? There are plenty of prisoners in European jails who tried that one too. They're not facing execution for it, but then that just brings us back again to square one, which is that China's record of executing those found guilty of breaking its laws may be many things, but earth-shattering news isn't one of them.

The country may have flirted with limited human-rights reforms in recent years, but its overall record on the ruthless suppression of religious and ethnic minorities and political dissenters easily makes the People's Republic the murderous totalitarian equivalent of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It's only cultural cringe which stops self-hating Western liberal intellectuals from subjecting the Chinese to the same standards which they demand closer to home.

Akmal Shaikh picked the wrong place to be caught with a bag full of heroin, but also the wrong place to be caught in an international spat about human rights.

The row will simmer for a while, but, between them, the money men and the sneaking regarders will make sure his name vanishes faster than the phrase "Falun Gong" from a Chinese search engine.

Still, at least the butchers of Bejing aren't hypocrites. Official Chinese communist ideology states openly that the rights of the individual are expendable in the services of the "harmonious society". They practise what they preach. What's our excuse?

Sunday Independent