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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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