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China

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 behindthe 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.

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