The Dangers of Chinese Interference in Illegal Logging Case

Chinese nationals arrive at the Myitkyina District Court on Wednesday ahead of their sentencing for involvement in illegal logging. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese nationals arrive at the Myitkyina District Court on Wednesday ahead of their sentencing for involvement in illegal logging. (Photo: Reuters)

On Wednesday, the news that Burma had sentenced 153 illegal loggers from China to life imprisonment was splashed across Chinese media. The Chinese Embassy in Rangoon verified on the same day that the actual sentence was 20 years in prison, but launched “solemn” representations over punishments it decried as “too heavy”.

The statement was echoed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which demanded that Burma “take all the factors into consideration and properly handle this case”. While the prospects of a successful appeal remains unclear, the sentences could spark a diplomatic dispute between China and Burma and run the risk of a Chinese interference in Burma’s internal affairs.

From China’s perspective, the sentences indeed seem heavy, despite somewhat commensurate punishments under China’s criminal code. Article 345 of China’s Criminal Law stipulates that illegal logging of relatively large amount (more than 2-5 cubic meters) is subject to a jail term of up to three years, with a maxiumum seven year sentence for amounts over 50 cubic meters.

Only for those cases where the amount of timber involved is particularly large (over 100-200 cubic meters) are jail terms of more than seven years warranted. If the reports of the seizure of 240 logs during the raid on the illegal operation are true, the most severe penalty under Chinese law would likely have been applied.

However, anger in China is already brewing over the “unfair” sentence. Some are incensed because Chinese loggers have in the past been treated with leniency and have demanded the same clemency this time. Some challenge the illegality of such logging, attributing it to the disputed actual ownership of the natural resources in northern Burma between local ethnic groups and the central government.

Legal experts question the evidence of the case, arguing it is impossible for each of the illegal loggers to have committed the same crime to the same level and warranting the same penalty. Most amusingly, conspiracy theorists blame the case on the “instigation” by Western countries, which they say drove a wedge in Sino-Burma relations by painting a picture of China’s economic invasion of Burma.

On the back of these sentiments, the Chinese government mouthpiece the Global Times has editorialized that the citizens of China demand justice and a “fair solution through arrangements between the two governments”.

To suggest that China should negotiate and arrange for the revocation of Burma’s legal ruling through political channels is not only bold, it borders on audacity. It openly ignores the judicial independence of a sovereign nation and undermines China’s fundamental foreign policy principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

Whatever excuses the Chinese have raised to obfuscate the activity of its citizens in Kachin State, the criminal nature of their activities are clear and indisputable. Under the rule of law, any grievances that they might harbor should be addressed through a legal approach only.

The Chinese embassy has provided consular support and legal assistance—it could even hire them the best legal team available for an appeal—but to step into the minefield of political pressure and direct interference is going to make a mockery of China’s non-interference principles, jeopardize already strained Sino-Burma relations and disgrace China’s fragile image of a peaceful rise to global power.

The calls for China’s interference in the case is particularly hypocritical and problematic given China’s track record on foreign criminals’ sentences in China.

In 2007, British citizen Akmal Shaikh was arrested in China for drug trafficking. While the most severe penalty in UK for the crime is life imprisonment, the Chinese court nonetheless applied China’s own standard and insisted a death sentence—despite 27 representations by the British government calling for clemency given Akmal’s mental health conditions. China even denied him a mental health evaluation requested by the UK government.

In 2011, the Chinese court sentenced five citizens of the Philippines to death for drug trafficking despite an appeal for leniency from President Aquino. In both cases, China insisted on its judicial independence and accused the foreign governments for meddling in China’s sovereign rights.

If China is to reverse its position now simply because Chinese citizens are standing trial, it will raise major questions about China’s double standards and hegemonic tendencies, especially in relations with smaller countries in the region.

Both the push and temptation for Beijing to act are strong. The ability to extend protection to overseas Chinese citizens is seen in China as a major test of the government’s legitimacy and credibility. For a democratic country, public dissatisfaction might only cost the leader an election, while in an undemocratic country like China, such matters are soon elevated to the realm of political survival.

Under the circumstances, China should resolve to improve public education in an effort to balance extreme views, yet at the moment official and analysts are spooked by potential accusations of not protecting Chinese citizens, and therefore, in the nationalist calculus, of betraying the country’s interests.

This leaves a large space for the ill-intentioned interest groups and business concerns in both countries to distort the truth and advance their own agendas, which poses further risks to bilateral relations. It is groups like this that benefit the most from illegal logging and most to lose if the present case undermines the current timber trade.

China should recognize and respect the legal nature of the trial instead of politicizing the case. It is China’s responsibility to protect its citizens, but such privilege certainly does not supersede local jurisdictions and should not extend to Chinese criminals overseas. Hopefully, Beijing will act rationally and refrain from political interference in a simple, clear-cut criminal case in Burma.

Yun Sun is a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.

9 Responses to The Dangers of Chinese Interference in Illegal Logging Case

  1. Communist china can not interference in illegal logging case. Asia and US will stand with Burma. Burma have the right to do what law Burma make.Communist china kill a lot of Tibetan and uighurs that nobody complain

  2. China has no jurisdiction over the laws of Burma; these are no common criminals; they are sanctioned by the Chinese Politburo. Punishment should be to the fullest extent as the law dictates and directs. Any amount of wailing from Peking should be flushed down the toilet.
    Under Than Shwe Sr., Burma was raped , looted and stripped of all her minerals- from jade, gas and oil, timber, people, to the environment. It is time to stop it or will be another Tibet and the South China Sea situation.

  3. The Chinese government’s protests against the illegal loggers’ sentence as “too heavy” is just the height of hypocrisy. They should look at their own practices of crime and punishment before lecturing other countries. They should also realize that other countries are not obliged to, nor they care to run their justice systems according to China’s “codes of law”. China needs to stop trying to strong-arm and interfere in other countries’ affairs.

  4. Menrihei Tainamkawng

    China has already interfered our internal affairs too much already. Under the leadership of SLORC/USDP/USDP, Myanmar has been like a province of Communist China. Mandalay is now the Chinese Capital of Myanmar State, China. We will watch and see whether USDP alows the Paukphaw to sleep with their wives and daughters. If China withdraws its Ambassador from Naypyitaw, let be it. Enough is enough. China sucks too much of Myanmar’s blood. If these illegal loggers are not guilty in the court of law in Myanmar, Sai Naw Kham would be sent back alive by China to Myanmar. Sai Naw Kham was ordered to kneel down before he was hanged by the Chinese. These illegal loggers need to kneel down to the people of Myanmar since our forest has been emptied by these illegal loggers. So, we are watching whether USDP bows to China or not.

  5. Kunming – Yunnan, A State in the State of China
    Beijing has the duty and Kunming China Governments have the responsibility to welcome the trail in Myanmar against illegal logging and should make this as their equal to Myanmar stand most well known all over China and specially in all Yunnan Region where in Kunming 90 % of all there cut hard wood is illegal wood from Myanmar.
    China should once Chinese as here criminals are caught and trailed , also after the sentence trail these people again . Illegal Logging is a Global Concern and a Global Crime – just happen in Myanmar , to stop and punish it hard is in a Global Interest. If Beijing China is interest to be seen as a Legal Working Global player than they must show this openly and educate their Yunnan – Kunming China Government. These all things here make China and Chinese not liked and looked down on all over the world. There are of course a wide majority of Chinese people which are good – why they have no interest of loosing this bad Chinese Image is not to understand,— Maybe to many and Beijing sure not in control of all China, – specially Yunnan and Kunming China seems to be a State in the State, run and ruled by corruption and all is possible.

  6. In fact, Burma has no law from fox than shwe from now and then. Fox Laws are coming from rubbish bama parliaments with his deadly nargic 2008 constitution. Fox will not charge his corrupted generals and his men according to military favored Law. Fox can kill and rape all ethnics and Rohingya if fox wants for his political gains and showing of the need of ruling of bama military for naive Burmese people and the world most poorest country. Fox wants to copycat China type of ruling because fox thinks his is equal to Mr. Xi, China leader. Fox can imprison any bodies against him (e.g. students, activists, oppositional party members). Fox will not charge and imprison police and solider who kill journalist and Kachin teachers. Fox will not charge Thu company Ta za who is the leader of illegal logging and jade business in Burma. It is so called double standard. Fox wants to challenge China who invite DASSK and fox wants to give a test dose to challenge China to stir up his slogan of Burmese nationalism so fox will tell some naive Burmese and monks that bama private army is crucial and essential for ruling the poor Burma due to the threat from China now. Then, fox thinks USDP will get more vote from some naive Burmese, students and monks from the fox’s poor and low standard strategy. Fox is expecting Obama, Clinton and EU for help or to balance the influence between China and others. In fact, fox plays the dangerous game from his looking down rich China.

    • China is just merely questioning for the severity of punishment equal to murderous case in this regard of illegal logging. Fox thinks students and monks will stand beside him in this regards to irritate China. Yes, illegal drug trafficking needs death sentence in other countries which make the life long damage of other people life or death with different interpretations (gray areas). Terrorist bombing needs death sentence( life for life payment). Death penalty is applied to fox and his men because of lack of duty of care of deadly Nargic victims and killing innocent own people, particularly political activists.

      • Ming aung hlaing should be sentenced for life long imprisonment equal to that of illegal logging in Burma. Because ming aung hlaing kills many innocent children in Burma as a tricky recruitment of child soldiers for fox private army . Fox and his men stole and steals state or country own properties, dollars and treasures for decades and decades so they all should be imprisoned for life long, equal to that of illegal logging in Burma. Fox and his men stolen money and treasure are more than the value of illegal logging by Chinese. One said Kachin gives permit to Chinese for logging in their own lands but bama army change the law which is superseded to Kachin law in anytime and anywhere fox likes to implement. Because fox men Tay za is free from illegal logging in the past for making huge money for fox and his men.

  7. It is difficult to discuss law in the lawless regions. Practical considerations must be weighed in.
    Might has always been right. This is just one small example of fallouts from rampant criminal acts by some, whom our military was charged to protect- 88 constitution,.25% military parliamentary representation, UEC commission practices, potential for nullification of results and the coup. The real hardcore criminals cannot allow a true democracy, too dangerous for them. Only ASSK has the moral authority to ensure a smooth transition as democracy emerges.
    The current case at hand. Let us not be stuck up with sophisticated legal and historical recalls. Practical considerations must prevail. It will be too much trouble and expense down the line. Let the criminals serve 7 years and let them go. We must strive to prevent future incursions and theft. We do not know how many of us are involved in the likes of these extortions. There is no one to help us in the physical sense; sanctions , trades .and curfews may be. Are we willing to take a chance?

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