BEIJING - China executed a British man for drug smuggling yesterday, ignoring international pleas for clemency on the grounds that he was mentally unstable and warning London that its outrage threatened relations.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he was "appalled" by the execution - China's first of a European citizen in nearly 60 years. But Beijing dismissed claims by relatives and rights groups that 53-year-old Akmal Shaikh's mental instability was exploited to lure him into smuggling a suitcase of heroin into the country.
Beijing's insistence in carrying out the death sentence reflects both the communist government's traditional distrust of foreign interference and its newfound power to resist Western pressure.
"We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to the British accusation," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference. "We urge the British side to correct its wrongdoing to avoid causing damages to bilateral relations."
With its rising global economic and political clout, China appears increasingly willing to ignore Western complaints over its justice system and human-rights record. And as it relies more and more on China's cooperation to solve global problems - from the recession to climate change - the West has few ways to exert pressure on Beijing.
China's leaders "feel freer than their recent predecessors to disregard world pressures," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on China's legal system at New York University School of Law.
Whereas in the past, the West may have held out its approval as a carrot for China to improve its record on human rights, analyst Kerry Brown said that countries like Britain are now the ones eager to maintain good relations.
"There is a feeling that we have very limited leverage on China," said Brown, a China expert at the Chatham House think tank. "We have to pick our territory where we can have an impact. It's becoming more complicated by the day."
The drug-trafficking accusation against Shaikh made the case particularly sensitive in China, said University of Miami politics expert June Teufel Dreyer. Chinese nationalists say that European powers, especially Britain, foisted opium on an unwitting populace in the 19th century after the country was forced to open its borders to European trade.
"Part of the narrative of the communists' liberating China from oppression is the wicked practice of foreign imperialist powers foisting drugs on a weak China," said Dreyer.
Eradicating widespread opium use was one of the founding legacies of the communist state, and Chinese nationalists have long pointed to the introduction of the drug as evidence of the nefarious influence of foreign powers.
Today, China's harsh penalties for drug use and selling also reflect its obsession with maintaining law and order amid sweeping social change.
Shaikh, a Pakistan-born former cab-company manager, was arrested in 2007 for carrying a suitcase with almost 9 pounds of heroin into China on a flight from Tajikistan. His cousins said that he was lured to China from a life on the street in Poland by men playing on his dreams to record a pop song for world peace.
He was convicted in 2008 after a half-hour trial.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said that Shaikh was put to death by lethal injection. China, which executes more people each year than any other country, is increasingly abandoning firing squads for lethal injection.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International said that China executed at least 1,718 people in 2008. The exact number is not known.