For week or so, photogenic 22-year-old western Sydneysider Kalynda Davis, who surfaced as a suspected methamphetamine smuggler and was detained in the southern Chinese drug capital Guangzhou, was on track to become the new Schapelle Corby.
An attractive Australian young woman, innocently caught up in a drug smuggling operation as an unwitting mule trapped in a brutal, no-bail, guilty-until-proven-innocent system. Then, after a month of representations, mainly from her legal team in China, she was quite suddenly set free — news that was held closely until she returned home yesterday. But as fantastic as Davis’ return must be to her family and friends, the case has shone a light on the extent of the latest drug scourge to hit the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia.
In April, then-acting Australian Crimes Commission head Paul Jevtovic likened meth to the crack cocaine scourge in the United States in the 1980s and labeled it a “national concern”. So, once the government is done congratulating itself on the rescue of one perhaps foolish Australian from a life doomed by ice, perhaps invisible Health Minister Peter Dutton could turn his attention to the real victims of the drug: countless thousands of regular Australians and their families.
Methamphetamine, commonly known as “ice” or “crystal”, usually smoked or snorted, has a potentially much bigger customer base than heroin. People can function on the drug at work and, with the option to avoid the socially stigmatic habit of hypodermic injection, its use is easier to hide. So the news, overall, is not nearly so cheery for many other Australian families being ripped apart by one of the most insidious drugs ever to hit the streets.
To say that Davis’ release surprised anyone who has seen case after case of innocent Australians end up in Chinese prisons is an understatement. And she is, quite frankly, very, very lucky. China’s brutal justice system does not let many free of its clutches.
But unlike many of the cases, Davis’ detention was not politically motivated. Most Australians who end up in Chinese prisons for non-drug-related charges are victims of business deals gone wrong, and retribution at a local level is enacted by Communist Party officials or business folks with the right connections.
Without making any judgements on Corby, Davis and her lawyers appear to have convinced Chinese authorities she was a complete innocent who appears to have hooked up with the wrong guy, Peter Gardner, a New Zealand citizen and resident of Richmond in Sydney’s west, not far from Davis’ Penrith home. Gardner remains in detention in China. Like with Corby, it’s unlikely we will ever know the whole truth.
Still, it is disingenuous for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to claim any credit, although officials from her department were publicly thanked by Davis’ family. Anyone with a remote understanding of the Chinese legal system will know that the decision was China’s and China’s alone.
The wheels of justice turn slowly everywhere and in China they are often stuck fast, but there are at least some slivers of light at the end of Chinese legal tunnel (to mix a couple of metaphors).
China has shown it has no qualms about putting foreigners before the firing squad — and drug charges are the main reason. But it worth noting, while being careful not to over interpret, the fact that the recent annual summit of the Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Standing Committee was squarely focused on improving the countries legal system.
As well, just 10 days ago, Matthew Ng, an Australian imprisoned in Guangzhou in 2011 over a business deal gone wrong, was the first person to be transferred back to serve the rest of his time in Australia under a deal inked back in 2010.
To the bigger picture and bigger problem: the sheer scale of the meth supply wave is almost incomprehensible. The drug is now being manufactured in the notorious Golden Triangle, where drug lords are adding to their traditional product, heroin, the manufacture of which also continues to increase.
Methamphetamine remains the top illicit drug threat in east and south-east Asia, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released last November. Seizures of methamphetamine in both pill and crystalline forms reached record highs there in 2012, with 227 million methamphetamine pills seized — a 60% increase from 2011 and a more than seven-fold increase since 2008 — along with 11.6 metric tonnes of crystalline methamphetamine, a 12% rise from 2011, the UNDOC report said.
You can bet those numbers are still climbing, as since then the number of busts in the region and Australia has increased — the amounts seized ever larger. Such hauls, with the limited resources of law enforcement agencies, are only ever the tip of the iceberg (excuse the pun) of any drug problem. And the fact remains that there are eight other Australians who have been detained in the past six to 12 months for similar offences in China. None have been sentenced so far, but any caught with more tan 50 grams of meth or heroin are at risk of execution by firing squad, a fate that is befalling an increasing number of foreigners in China as the government intensifies its crackdown.