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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*

-OpEd-

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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