Drug mules: dicing with death in China

Two young British women in the news after being caught with cocaine in their luggage in Peru are lucky that the Peruvian authorities are so lenient about drug trafficking. They face trial and possibly lengthy jail terms. In other countries, particularly in Asia, the ordinary course of action is execution. 

Here’s an article I wrote after a South African woman accused of being a drug mule  was given a lethal injection in China in a cruel chain of events.

English: The room at , completed in 2010. Espa...

English: The room at , completed in 2010. Español: La cámara de ejecución de la Prisión Estatal de San Quentin, construido en 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The chilling execution of a South African woman accused of smuggling drugs into China is a reminder that either South Africa is really quite insignificant to the world’s newest superpower or President Jacob Zuma is embarrassingly impotent on the global political stage. My money is on the former.

South Africans were variously shocked and delighted  at the news that 38-year-old Janice Bronwyn Linden was given a lethal injection the same day she was told the appeal against her sentence had failed. She was sentenced to death for about 3kg of tik (crystal methamphetamine) found in her luggage when she arrived in China in the southern city of Guangzhou three years ago.

In China, the news of Linden’s death-by-lethal-injection barely registered. Executions are commonplace, with thousands receiving the death penalty in China each year for at least 55 offences ranging from selling tainted food and corruption to murder, so one could perhaps argue they no longer represent interesting news items for Chinese folk.

However, black women are a rarity in much of China, attracting stares and touches from locals amazed to see an ethnically different person. There has also been much talk about black people in Guangzhou, where many African immigrants live in an area called Chocolate City, causing trouble in the region.

Some Chinese officials speak of Africans in Guangzhou of being “three illegals foreigners”. The “three illegals” refers to their contraventions of entry, residence and employment laws in China.

The Chinese have never fully recovered from the ordeal of the Britain-instigated opium wars in the 19th century, and China takes a hard line on drug offences, so at the very least you’d expect them to trumpet their proud achievement of culling another drug mule. But, unlike the news and accompanying protests around a Filipino migrant worker’s executionfor drug trafficking a few days earlier, not even a mutter was audible on the news of Linden’s passing.

Some South Africans called on President Zuma to appeal to the Chinese authorities for mercy. Indeed he said he did just that, though it didn’t delay the execution at all and before long the young woman’s ashes were en route to her grieving family back in KwaZulu-Natal.

Jacob Zuma, former vice president of South Africa.

The South African authorities conceded the matter would not have an adverse effect on relations between China and Africa. Some will be relieved that it is business-as-usual between South Africa and its biggest customer, China.

Exports from South Africa to China reached an estimated US$6bn in the first six months of 2011. If President Zuma did register his dissatisfaction vigorously to Chinese leaders, there would inevitably be an outcry in some quarters that he had jeopardised the country’s most important trade relationship.

But it seems unlikely he did get stroppy with the former president, Hu Jintao, over the untimely departure from this world of Ms Linden. After all, China’s president is the de facto emperor of the developing world and China is Africa’s prime benefactor, with many lucrative opportunities for the continent’s elite – just ask Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who has had a very cushy ride thanks to his Chinese friends.

Besides, we have already had strong indications that humanitarian values are not a prerequisite of doing business in the new era. Just take the hullaballoo over the Dalai Lama, the man-of-the-cloth China believes is a political devil.

Zuma and friends have been unrepentant about South Africa’s failure to grant the dear old gent a visa to travel in the country, including to his pal Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday bash earlier this year. If Zuma was unfazed by the outcry around the Dalai Lama’s visa woes, it is unlikely he would lose any sleep about a poor KZN woman.

So let’s assume for a minute that President Zuma did indeed put a call through to President Hu on their direct line to discuss Linden’s alleged naughtiness and strongly urged him to reconsider the penalty. Clearly the answer wasn’t yes.

China’s president is the most powerful person in a totalitarian, undemocratic state where there is no justice or legal fair play as we know it. It is highly unlikely he wouldn’t have been able to put a stop to his henchmen readying the lethal syringe.

So then, that only leaves the probability that Hu doesn’t give a hoot about what South Africans think about what he does to South Africans. In other words, we are pretty much irrelevant to China.

This irrelevance to the world’s second most powerful nation should hardly surprise us. Although we wax lyrical back home about how wonderful China is, China seldom mentions South Africa when it boasts about its international trade achievements.

South African companies, from a South African perspective, are noticeably absent from China’s corporate landscape and Africans, let alone South Africans, are barely seen among the foreigners in many cities in China. There’s not much going on visibly between Africa and China in general – certainly not much compared to what China is up to with other countries.

China is effusive with its praise for its resource-rich neighbour Russia and others in Central Asia and clearly cherishes its relationships with its friends in South America. It is determined to gain ground in the US in international trade and holds European countries in high regard.

South Africa for China is interesting, but not indispensible. We provide cheap resources, are an easy market for poor quality goods and blithely kiss the emperor’s foot whenever it is required – from agreeing with the One China policy to pledging support at important global meetings.

So, does China really care about what ordinary Africans think and feel? Janice Linden, who protested her innocence until her last hours, saying the drugs were planted in her case, may have been a woman about whom many think good riddance to bad rubbish.

However, her death also serves as a reminder that, in the eyes of the Chinese, ordinary South Africans and our cherished ideals, as espoused in our Constitution, are inconsequential. It also raises the question once again of whether we should be embracing a country like China to the extent we are doing instead of focusing on also growing other trade relationships.

Many of us are making money on the back of China: but at what price?

By Jackie Cameron

This piece was published by Moneyweb (a media company listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange) in December 2011. Write to Jackie Cameron at jackiecameron.uk@gmail.com. 

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