Killing Tradition: What It Will Take To End The Death Penalty In China

After several high-profile miscarriages of justice, could a Chinese movement take root to abolish capital punishment? But public outrage cuts both ways.

An 1867 public execution in China.
An 1867 public execution in China.
Lin Yunshi

BEIJING – In recent years in China, several miscarriages of justice have been in the spotlight, including cases or wrongful imprisonment -- and even execution.

Nie Shubin, 20, was executed in 1995 for the rape and murder of a woman. Ten years later, another man confessed to the crime.

Zhao Zuohai, 58, was convicted for the murder of a man in 2002, and sentenced to the death penalty. Ten years later, the victim, Zhao Zhenshang, turned up and Zuohai was acquitted and freed.

She Xianglin, 47, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1998 for the murder of his wife. After spending 11 years in prison, he was declared innocent and released after his wife was found living in a neighboring province.

Following these high profile cases, there have been increasing discussions among Chinese scholars and in the public on whether or not the death penalty should be abolished. Recently, Zhao Bingzhi, a professor of criminal law at Beijing Normal University, recommended that China gradually limit and reduce the death penalty and ultimately abolish it.

Zhao Bingzhi is the Director of Beijing Normal University’s College of Criminal Law Science. He also serves as Distinguished Counselor to the Supreme People’s Court.

During a recent debate at the French Embassy in Beijing on the death penalty, Professor Zhao argued that China should limit strictly the application of the death penalty and gradually reduce the number of capital punishments. He suggested fully abrogating the death penalty in 2050, for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Execution as corruption deterrent?

Reviewing China's death penalty reform, Zhao explained that when China's tough anti-crime campaign – the severe-punishment campaign – was launched in 1982, China's National People's Congress Standing Committee passed 24 separate criminal laws in which the death penalty was attached to serious criminal offenses and economic crimes.

In addition the death penalty review system was amended so that the procedure for reviewing death penalty cases was delegated to the high courts in the provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government.

To prevent unjustified and wrongful executions as well as to control the total number of death penalty cases in China, the power of review of all death sentences was given back to the Supreme People’s Court in 2007. In 2011, China revised its Criminal law to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death by 13. Economic-related non-violent offenses such as financial and tax fraud, smuggling relics, precious metals and rare animals as well as looting cultural ruins were taken of the death penalty list.

However, today China still holds the world record for the most capital offenses – 55. Moreover, China considers the number of executions as a state secret and has never publicized it.

Some people believe that retaining the death punishment will help to curb corruption. But He Jiahong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing believes this is not true. He says that while current anti-corruption policies rely on severe punishment, effective investigation is better than punishment. Case in point, even though the punishment for corruption in China is very harsh, there is still a very high incidence of corruption. This is proof that the best way to curb corruption is democracy and the rule of law.

As for the relationship between public opinion and the death penalty, Professor Qin Hui of Tsinghua University in Beijing says when a system progresses, it guides and changes public opinion. Qin believes that judicial reform of the abolition of the death penalty can prevail over public opinion, quoting He Weifang, one of the country’s most influential law professors: "The less judicial independence there is, the quicker the country should abolish the death penalty."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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