One detail in the story of the execution of Akmal Shaikh in China last month has stayed with me, after all the bluster of "vile regimes" and lack of respect for human life has gone. It was the Chinese police's description of the 4kg of heroin he was caught carrying. In the West, such a seizure would be given a lurid six-digit "street value of…", but the Chinese police described it as enough to have killed 27,000 people. A small distinction, but one that should give pause for thought to any politician who believes the West has a monopoly on correctly valuing human life.
To me, the real scandal in this story was lost: the complete ineptitude of our own leaders in establishing a dialogue with, and understanding the concerns of, a country already established as one of the global agenda-setters of the 21st Century. There is no ambiguity on where I stand on the issue of Mr Shaikh: as a former police officer, I am implacably opposed to capital punishment. But after being involved in making quiet representations to the Chinese ambassador on Mr Shaikh's behalf, I have been mortified by the very public and clumsy moves made by the Labour Government's misjudged attempts to publicly embarrass the Chinese internationally.
Gordon Brown's personal letter asking for clemency may well have been too little too late, but since he nullified any impact it might have had by simultaneously blaming China for the failure of the Copenhagen environmental summit, we will never know. Both the individual tragedy of Mr Shaikh's fate, and the broader issue of building a grown-up, mutually respectful relationship with the world's most populous state seemed to take a secondary role to the old-fashioned business of finding a foreign country to demonise. The former US senator Lincoln Chafee's formulation that "In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid" seems to require a further refinement after these fumbles: that some politicians are better left unheard.
The hollowness to Chinese ears of the UK Government's condemnation is clear when you understand that this is a culture that takes a long view of history: the humiliation of the Victorian era's Opium Wars in which Imperial Britain fought to continue peddling the drug to China is still raw. And its legacy of an estimated 100 million opium users was a precursor to the state of anarchy and warlordism which persisted in China through the early 20th Century (another unreported footnote to the case is that Mr Shaikh was arrested in the north west of China, where ethnic Uighur Islamist terrorist groups – some with links to al-Qaeda – have used drug monies to fund their campaigns).
The Chinese never want to go back there, and their Government's hard line on drugs enjoys plenty of popular support. As the Times reported, domestic internet forums discussing the story showed little sympathy for western efforts to save Mr Shaikh. "China is not Qing anymore; we decide what to do on our land," read one, a swipe at the corrupt dynasty that presided over China's 19th Century decline. When 21st Century blogs are replete with such references, you begin to understand how in the 1960s the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai could declare that it was "too early to tell" what the lessons of the French revolution were!
Perhaps another clue to China's indifference to our lectures on morality can be found in a recent survey in the Economist on the professions which dominate politics. In stark contrast to the lawyers who have taken centre stage in the USA and Britain, the Chinese political leadership is dominated by engineers who perhaps care less about individual rights and wrongs, and more about taking the potentially unwieldy structure of 1.3 billion citizens and 56 distinct ethnic groups and turning it into something that works. They can point to some spectacular results: according to the World Bank, they have cut poverty rates from 53% of the population in 1981 to just 8% now.
Indeed it is an odd kind of pariah state, that has become both the biggest bankroller of US government debt with a holding of $800 billion in US treasury bonds, and a $400 billion lender in providing the economic stimulus to underpin all the fine words of last April's G20 meeting on the world recession. Small wonder that when China hears our politicians sounding off in the national press about it, it feels unappreciated. Always ready to help a friend in need out, only to be slandered to his family.
And maybe we should be a little more ready to listen and a little less eager to condemn on green issues. Prior to Copenhagen, China pledged to make a unilateral cut of 45% in carbon emissions with no strings attached. When 190 other countries and regions failed to agree on binding limits, China has more than enough reason to feel singled out. On this issue alone there are strong pragmatic reasons to keep China on-side, the country has just become the world's second biggest spender on R&D, part of leader Hu Jintao's pledge to turn the country from a manufacturing power to an innovation-based economy. It has a particular focus on sustainable energy, and is also a pioneer of cleaner, safer pebble-bed nuclear reactors. It is amassing a bank of knowledge from which a post-carbon world will have to draw heavily.
Of course, we will frequently not see eye to eye with the Chinese Government. But the foreign policy of the last decade has been dominated by two poorly run military adventures, conceived with the ambition of saddling other countries with our system of government, regardless of whether it fits. Now seems a good time to draw a line underneath it, to begin to denounce a little less, and understand a little more. China would be the best possible place to start. We need a new kind of politics both in Westminster and on the international stage if we are to make this world a safer, fairer and greener place for our children.