Pundits have missed a key point: an increasingly confident China is not playing to an international crowd. Politics is always local, and never more so than in China today, where an autocratic regime must ensure political stability above all. The need to project power internally has also become a particularly important goal in the run-up to 2012, the year that China will announce new leadership. For the first time in decades, there is an internal jockeying for control within the party, in which populists led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are duking it out with a group of coastal elitists. Hu is already under fire from the rival faction for being indecisive and ineffectual on everything from dissent to economic policy, and those internal critiques ring louder in his ears than the complaints of international human-rights activists.
If the execution of a mentally disabled Brit seems particularly gratuitous to outsiders, it looks a bit different inside China, which has recently been dealing with a series of deranged murderers, at least one of whom officials claim had a history of mental illness.