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.