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(CNN) —  

When China handed down a death sentence to a Canadian citizen this week, it sent shockwaves around the world.

China rarely executes Westerners. The last high-profile case was in 2009, when British national Akmal Shaikh was executed for carrying 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of heroin at Urumqi Airport.

Like the sentencing of Robert Lloyd Schellenberg this week, Shaikh’s death sentence prompted outrage in the West and appeals for leniency from his government.

But should we be surprised by Schellenberg’s sentence for conspiring to smuggle more than 222 kilograms (489.4 pounds) of methamphetamine from a Chinese port city to Australia?

China is the world’s top executioner, according to Amnesty International, sentencing thousands to death every year. China does not disclose execution numbers.

Over the past decade, people from Uganda, South Korea, Japan and Kenya have received death sentences for drug crimes. In 2016, the Nigerian senate reportedly heard that 120 of its citizens were on death row in China.

Many foreign nationals awaiting execution come from countries with good relations with Beijing, demonstrating that – outside the West – China makes no exceptions for drug offenders, whatever the diplomatic cost.

End of Western leniency?

It is no secret that the Chinese government is tough on drugs, says Maya Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch China, noting that Beijing has previously detained illegal substance users in labor detention centers.

China is surrounded by drug-producing nations. In 2017, China’s annual drug report said there were 2.55 million drug abusers in the country, a 2% rise over the previous year.

But in the past, Westerns often enjoyed softer sentences for such crimes – and better treatment in detention – to ease diplomatic relations and avoid international criticism, says Wang.

“The case here, in which a Western citizen is being given a death sentence in China is highly unusual,” she added. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Initially, Schellenberg was seemingly the recipient of such leniency. On November 20, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for being an accessory to drug smuggling. But he appealed his conviction and at his retrial this week – more than a month after top Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver, accused by the United States of helping cover up violations of sanctions on Iran – he was convicted of a primary role in the smuggling and was sentenced to death.

Robert Llyod Schellenberg has been sentenced to death for drug smuggling in China.
Robert Llyod Schellenberg has been sentenced to death for drug smuggling in China.
PHOTO: Dalian Court

That is a break in protocol for China’s deeply politically entwined judicial system.

Other Western citizens executed by China have been born in non-Western countries: Shaikh was born in Pakistan and, in 2010, a Lao-born Frenchman was sentenced to death. That potentially muddies the waters over which foreign government the Chinese would square off with.

However, the implications of executing a Canadian-born Canadian citizen are clear, and raise important questions: Is Schellenberg’s case an isolated example of political retaliation, or does it hint at a new precedent in China of Western drug offenders facing the same treatment as those from the rest of the world?

As China’s economic and political might grows, the age of leniency for Westerners there just might have expired.