Is China Slowly Chipping Away At The Death Penalty?

Though China remains the world leader in use of capital punishment, for the second time in three years, the list of capital crimes may be reduced. But authorities may face popular backlash.

Han Lei, shown in Beijing court in 2013, was executed last month for killing a toddler during a row with her mother over a parking space.
Han Lei, shown in Beijing court in 2013, was executed last month for killing a toddler during a row with her mother over a parking space.
Xu Lanting*


BEIJING — Under a recently released "Criminal Law Amendment draft," China's leaders are expected to cancel the death penalty for nine types of crime. Many academics and legal professionals have expressed their support, and I firmly support this revision of the regulations.

But I am also convinced that China still has much further to go in reducing capital punishment.

The intended withdrawal of the nine capital charges, rarely applied in judicial practice, are the smuggling of weapons and ammunition, the smuggling of nuclear material, the smuggling of counterfeit money, the counterfeiting of money, fundraising fraud, organizing prostitution, forcing a person into prostitution, obstruction of the execution of military duties, and spreading rumors in war time.

I have consistently advocated reducing the instances where the death penalty is applied. It is still true that such advocacy is perhaps still unrealistic in China when it comes to the crime of manslaughter. However, I believe that for non-violent crimes, such as corruption, embezzlement and other economic crimes, the death penalty should now be cancelled.

This amendment would signal a great step forward for China's legal justice system, where economic crimes, in particular conviction for financial fraud and illegal use of public deposits, will no longer be subject to capital punishment, even with reprieve, but to a maximum of life imprisonment.

This proposal comes in the wake of the case last year of Zeng Chengjie, an entrepreneur convicted of illegal fundraising, whose execution came under questionable legal procedures and sparked widespread public concern.

This Criminal Law Amendment draft also intends to raise the threshold for executing prisoners who've received a "death sentence with reprieve." Currently for an inmate who has been given this sentence, and who commits another intentional crime, "the execution will be approved by the Supreme People's Court once the evidence is verified."

In the submitted draft, the execution is to apply only if the current crime is considered serious or "aggravated." Certain intentional offenses can be slight, for example, there is no need to pursue the execution of a prisoner who inflicts minor injuries on a fellow inmate.

If the draft law is adopted, there will still remain 46 capital crimes in China. From a legislative perspective this number still ranks relatively high on a global scale. In terms of the real number of executions, China is and will most likely remain the world leader.

China has much room to go in further reducing the application of the death sentence. For instance, drug-related crimes such as drug trafficking and transporting are still capital crimes and executions are relatively frequently carried out. In contrast with the rest of the world, the non-violent offenses of corruption and taking bribes are capital crimes. In the face of the fervor stirred up by the Chinese authorities' current anti-corruption campaign, changing this would most likely to face enormous public opposition.

By adding to the 13 capital crimes abolished in the last criminal law amendment in 2011, China will now have cancelled 22 capital crimes in the last four years. We hope that eventually China's execution data, so far regarded as a state secret, will also become public. That change may take years to arrive.

*Beijing legal scholar Xu Lanting's views were gathered and edited by Caixin's Lin Yunshi

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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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