Justice for all

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 1995, 12:00am

JAMES Peng may not seem like one of the lucky ones. An 18-year sentence for embezzling $1.1 million and misappropriating 290,000 yuan is harsh by most Western standards - especially when the circumstances surrounding his arrest, the charges laid against him, the evidence of his guilt and the trial itself are all decidedly murky.

It is not yet clear whether Peng will be expelled from China early, as the Chinese-American activist Harry Wu Hongda was last month, or whether he will have to serve part of his sentence in China. Yet he is undoubtedly a lucky man. Peng's status as an Australian passport-holder not only ensured the sentence included deportation but may also have saved his life.

The message to Hong Kong businessmen working in China is that unless they are among the lucky few to have acquired British citizenship (and even then it is not certain Britain would fight as hard for them as Australia was embarrassed into doing for James Peng) they had better start looking for an alternative, blue-chip foreign passport. Holders of British National (Overseas) passports or documents from small nations whose friendship and trade China does not value as much as it does its relations with Australia or America should watch their backs.

Worse, Peng's kidnap from a Macau hotel room two years ago has shown how little protection anyone sought by the Chinese authorities can expect from the Macau authorities even before the enclave reverts to Chinese control. It leaves a huge question mark over what could happen in Hong Kong after 1997.

It is unclear whether justice has been done. It is certainly not the case that justice has been seen to be done. The case has done nothing to improve the business climate or the reputation of the Chinese legal and judicial systems. It is a warning to any potential foreign investor in China to beware of moving goal-posts or stay away. Investors who live in constant fear that their business partners will turn against them or bring in the relatives of powerful national leaders to back a case against them will inevitably begin to look for opportunities elsewhere.

There is one further group who will have picked up a message from the James Peng and Harry Wu cases. Corrupt Chinese officials and businessmen who genuinely do have something to hide, or who fear their political enemies may turn against them in future anti-corruption campaigns, will also be searching for a foreign citizenship and will have the money to pay for it. Foreign governments will find themselves asked to put pressure on Beijing for leniency in far less deserving cases than Peng or Wu and their concern will be devalued as a result.

However, the biggest loser from all this will, of course, be China, which will alienate both investors and its international partners. The lesson for Beijing is that all should be equal before Chinese law and justice. That will only be possible if the law itself is operated openly and fairly, if political interference is effectively banned from the judicial system and if justice is regularly seen to be done in courts open to the press and teams of international observers. Beijing should learn from Peng's case.