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.