Sources

A Corrupt Official, Public Rage And A Uniquely Chinese Plea To End The Death Penalty

Liu Zhijun, China's former Railway Minister, has received a "suspended" death penalty. He may get a reprieve. But one writer says it's time for a vengeful China to abolish executions altogether.

Liu Zhijun in court
Liu Zhijun in court
Chen Jieren

BEIJING - On Monday, Liu Zhijun, China's former Railway Minister, was sentenced to death with a reprieve of two years. All his personal property has been confiscated.

Liu was found guilty of taking 64.6 million RMB ($10.5 million) in bribes and of abuse of power, which caused a particularly heavy loss of public property and damaged the interests of individuals, as well as, the nation.

Since Liu Zhijung has clearly stated that he will not appeal, this sentence will be this case's final outcome.

To be honest, my heart is very torn by seeing the onetime "railroad hero" reduced to this. On the one hand, I marvel at his collapse and even feel a pang of regret for him. On the other, given the clear proof of his crime, I am also happy to see him severely punished by the law. In the end, though, I am convinced most of all that the court's discretionary judgment that leaves Liu the possibility of avoiding execution should be encouraged.

Many Chinese believe that, unless Liu is executed, the court will be unable to appease the public's resentment, that only a death sentence can set a proper example of how a corrupt official is properly punished. I understand the reasons behind the public's wish to see Liu executed. Their wish is based on a pursuit of judicial fairness and justice, a hatred of crooked officials, and the need to eliminate corruption.

Still, I see four clear reasons not to put Liu to death.

First, from a factual and legal point of view, the court held that Liu had taken RMB 646 million in bribes. However, there exists a huge dispute about the RMB 490 million of the sum attributed to "public relation fees." It was a sum that Liu got some businessmen to pay so that He Hongda, his Vice-Minister who was under arrest, would be punished less severely. The court found that Liu also intended to use the money to help avoid any punishment himself.

Still, from the most rigorous principle of proof, this part of the money should not be considered as a bribe, which would reduce the total amount to only RMB 15 million. With such a sum and taking into account the sentences handed down in corruption cases in the past three years, Liu doesn't deserve to be executed.

Second, the reason why so many favor putting Liu to death is his high-level position. However, we should never put all the blame on Liu because of our years of hatred of the chaos at the Railway Ministry or even the difficulty of buying tickets at the Chinese New Year vacation period. Alas, viewing Chinese reaction on the Internet, it's precisely because they hate the Ministry so much that they wish to see the execution of Liu. Such irrational venting of anger is clearly contrary to the principle of justice.

Abolition starts with economic crimes

Third, Liu deserves credit for the immense contribution, during his long years of service, to China's railway development. That China has an ever expanding high-speed rail network today, which brings great convenience to people and a competitive pressure on civil aviation is due in no small measure to Liu. He is a sort of "tragic hero" in a society where corruption is ubiquitous.

Fourth, from the concept of criminal law, I resolutely advocate abolishing the death penalty. To achieve this goal the death sentence for non-violent crimes such as economic crimes should be abolished first. However big the bribe Liu took, he is not a dangerous man.

Some might question why it is that every time a corrupt official has fallen, there's always someone coming out to call for the abolition of capital punishment? The logic arouses suspicion. In fact, such calls are not to justify a particular corrupt official's acts. They are speaking of all non-violence crime: bribery, theft, fraud or smuggling.

Looking back over China's recent history, which can be qualified as the "revolutionary struggle history," we see too much belligerence and bloodshed. Because of this, there is an absence of trust, care, and tolerance among people. This helps explain why so many Chinese people still believe in the role of the death penalty and advocate "killing in order to appease".

They do not realize that the more we behave this way, the more social divisions deepen, and the formation of a civil society based on mutual trust, support, and tolerance is less likely. If we forgive a corrupt official today, it looks like we are forgiving a criminal. But in fact, it is a way to calm our own deep-seated instincts of violence, and bid farewell to the part of Chinese history steeped in conflict, struggles, and blood.

Four years ago, I wrote an article called “The five reasons why Liu Zhijun must resign". In that article, I enumerated his wrongdoings and abuse of power, but this article was banned from most Chinese Internet sites. We know from this that if China were really a place with freedom of speech, where citizens' rational criticisms could really influence an official’s future and were this a society with true equality before the law and real democracy, Liu wouldn’t have fallen so far.

In this sense, what pushes Liu, a man of high capabilities and outstanding administrative performance, into jail is exactly our institutions. When one only thinks about how to kill Liu to appease public resentment, we fall into the trap set by a certain group of people. This is precisely “Seeing the trees without seeing the forest,” or looking at matters with static thinking. If such a national mentality remains, the ultimate victim will always be the public.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ