The right direction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 September, 2010, 12:00am

Recent years have seen China making encouraging moves towards reform of the criminal justice system, especially where the death penalty is concerned. It isn't clear yet if all the reforms will be effective but at least such reforms have been accepted as the way to go.

In 2007, China decided that all capital punishment cases had to be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court. Apparently as a result, there has been a drop in the number of executions.

While China does not publish execution figures, the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights group based in the United States, estimates that China now executes fewer than 5,000 people a year, compared to over 10,000 a decade ago. Despite the drop, China still enjoys the dubious distinction of executing more people each year than the rest of the world combined.

In May, regulations were issued making confessions obtained through torture inadmissible in court, especially in death penalty cases. There are cases up for review now before the Supreme People's Court where there is little doubt torture was decisive in getting a confession. Now, all eyes are on how the court deals with such cases. In July came the news that the practice of parading criminals through the streets - sometimes on the way to the execution ground - will no longer be allowed.

And now, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress is considering substantially reducing the number of crimes to which the death penalty will apply. This proposal to amend the criminal law, if passed, will cut the number of crimes punishable by death from 68 to 55. Those crimes to be excluded are primarily economic ones.

The China Daily has reported that there is opposition to such a step from some legislators, who say that economic crimes are on the rise in China. Regardless of whether this proposal is adopted in the current session, the trend towards a reduction of executions in China seems clear. As Professor Wang Zhenmin, a criminal law professor at Tsinghua University, has said, the reduction of capital punishment is an inevitable trend and a reflection of the country's social development based on the protection of human rights.

China emphasises different aspects of human rights than Western countries, which tend to look primarily at civil and political rights. By contrast, China, like many other developing countries, puts stress on economic rights, including the right to development.

But these are not irreconcilable positions since all parties agree that human rights are universal and indivisible. Recently, for example, the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare access to clean drinking water and sanitation a human right. The resolution was supported by 122 countries, with none against, but there were 41 abstentions, including the United States and Britain. These countries, and others, decided to abstain for both procedural and substantive reasons.

While Xinhua poked fun at the US, saying 'the well-fed don't know how the starving suffer', the reality is that many member states felt that the General Assembly should wait for the Human Rights Council in Geneva to finish its work on the issue. The council has appointed an independent expert to undertake a study on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In fact, as the vote shows, not a single country was opposed to the proposition. This issue certainly does not reflect any gulf between the developed and developing countries.

China's actions to prevent the use of torture in extracting confessions, reviewing death sentences and, now, reducing the number of crimes subject to the death penalty suggest it is moving closer to the developed world in its approach to human rights. That is, that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent and that the death penalty, if preserved, should be applied only to the most heinous crimes involving the use of violence.

At a time when repression often seems the norm in China, such a development is welcome indeed.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator