Why Lawyers Are The Only Opposition To The Death Penalty In China

A murder case in which a Chinese student poisoned and killed his roommate has brought out the worst in the Chinese public, which is practically marching with pitchforks for his execution. Attorneys, meanwhile, are urging that he be spared.

Trial at the Higher People's Court of Yunnan Province, China
Trial at the Higher People's Court of Yunnan Province, China
Lan Rongjie


BEIJING â€" Two years ago, Shanghai medical student Lin Senhao fatally poisoned his roommate. He was sentenced to death last year for intentional homicide, and his case is currently being reviewed. Though it's difficult to predict the final outcome, the public appears bloodthirsty, eager for him to pay the ultimate price for his crime.

Lin's case is reminiscent of another one a few years ago in which university music student Yao Jiaxin knocked over a pedestrian and then stabbed her to death because she was trying to write down his license plate number. He was executed in 2011.

In both cases, the accused were and are college students, but there is another significant similarity: Public opinion was and is surprisingly consistent in calling for the death penalty. Meanwhile, a weak voice of opposition to execution is coming from none other than the legal community.

Whether Yao deserved the death penalty in 2011 or whether Lin deserves it now is a matter of opinion. But the legal community, which is overwhelmingly against capital punishment in Lin's case, and the public, which is practically marching with pitchforks, couldn't be more divided.

Are people in the legal community simply more merciful, or is it because "lawyers are the devil's advocate"? Kindness and mercy aren't typically character traits associated with lawyers. While judges often enjoy the assumption of impartiality, attorneys have a much more complicated image. At best, they are deemed resourceful and courageous. At worst, they are cunning and greedy.

On the contrary, there are many people among the public at large who can't bear even the idea of killing a chicken or cutting a fish. So why is it that, in the face of young offenders such as Lin Senhao and Yao Jiaxin, they become more bloodthirsty than those whose work is in the law?

Yao Jiaxin â€" Photo: SyaNHs/Wikimedia Commons

Explaining the divide

It may be at least partly explained by the proximity that the general public and the legal community have respectively to such cases. Many lawyers and judges deal with criminal cases daily, and are frequently exposed to the facts and circumstances of bloodshed and murder. They are familiar with the most brutal side of human nature, and consequently are both less prone to be shocked and more likely to understand any mitigating factors.

Meanwhile, a murder case can easily stir strong emotions in ordinary citizens. As the saying goes, everyone has a steelyard in their heart. While the legal community may feel there are extenuating circumstances in Lin's case, public opinion lacks nuance and regards the offense as absolutely unforgivable.

The phenomenon may also be explained by the degree of the murderer's "personification" in the minds of the two groups. To most people, Lin is a stranger and an abstract symbol. The public's understanding of him is limited to the rough outline of his case and probably a few lines of news summaries.

But someone familiar with the law regards the defendant in the context of his background and circumstance. Lin isn't seen as an abstraction but as a real young man whose circumstances and history help to define him.

This also explains why some Fufan University students want Lin to be spared. Though his crime has left them distraught, it's much more difficult to wish death for someone you know than for a stranger. The same is true for reporters who have delved deeply into Lin's case, who understand him as a person. They too are among the minority of people who reject the notion that executing Lin is the only way to achieve justice.

Finally, the public's alignment with victims may also help explain their pitchfork mentality. Empathy is a human instinct at the root of emotions such as mercy, compassion and anger. Faced with the knowledge of a vicious murder, the public's self-protection is triggered, and it identifies with the victim. By contrast, lawyers and judges are trained to consider the defendant's rights and to presume innocence.

Such empathy is often reflected in criminal trials. In rape cases, for instance, women judges generally give heavier sentences than male judges. But in juvenile delinquency cases, it's the other way around. In the first case, judges are perhaps swayed by their vulnerability as women, and in the second case by their protective instincts as mothers.

Though criminal law professors say that capital penalties are inevitable in China, they nevertheless advocate the progressive abolition of the death penalty. Meanwhile, the notion of "a life for a life" is an ingrained conviction among the Chinese public.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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