Life after death?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

Late last month, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress reduced by 13 the number of offences punishable by death, lowering the figure to 55. It was the first time in 32 years that the legislature had cut the number of capital offences and a victory for campaigners who want to abolish the death penalty.

The 13 include offences related to smuggling, robbery, financial crimes and protection of cultural treasures.

China does not publish the number of executions. Amnesty International estimated that, in 2008, at least 1,718 people were executed, nearly 75 per cent of the global total, while 7,003 were sentenced to death.

In global terms, China is in a minority. Fewer than 60 countries still use the death penalty, with 95 having abolished it and 40 more not having carried out an execution for more than 10 years. Even Russia, the model for China's post-1949 justice system, has not executed anyone since August 1996. After China, the countries that execute the most are Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The high figure in China reflects the government's belief that it needs such a penalty to control the world's largest population, with 56 ethnic groups and a great diversity of culture, wealth and geography. It considers stability as the sine qua non of economic progress and social development.

Public opinion also strongly supports the death penalty, especially for murder and other violent crimes and frauds which ruin the lives of families, like pyramid schemes in which people lose their life savings. 'A life for a life' is a core belief of many Chinese. Moral objections to the death penalty play a minor role in a country with weak religious institutions.

The abolitionist lobby is small, led by legal scholars, of whom the most prominent is Qiu Xinglong, a professor of law at Xiangtan University in Hunan, who first publicly called for China to abolish the death penalty in 2000. Other scholars argue that, while conditions are not ripe for total abolition, the government should strictly limit its application to murder and other crimes involving violence against a person.

They argue that the judicial authorities use the death penalty as a political weapon, a legacy of the Maoist era. The clearest examples came during the 'Strike Hard' campaigns, launched in 1983, 1996, 2001 and June last year -nationwide actions to reduce crime. Police chiefs are under great pressure to achieve targets, to satisfy their superiors and the public; these campaigns result in many people guilty of minor offences as well as innocents being executed, the scholars argue.

They also point to flaws in legal procedure, with over-reliance on confessions, few witnesses, restricted access by defence lawyers and the partiality of many judges to the prosecution side. Another flaw, the right of local courts to impose the death penalty, was addressed in 2007, when the Supreme People's Court ordered that it must review all death penalty decisions.

But these arguments carry limited weight with the government, which points to the high level of crime. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of criminal cases in 2009 reached 5.3 million, an increase of 10 per cent over 2008, and civil cases 9.9 million, up 20 per cent. Violent crimes, including homicide, rape and robbery, rose for the first time since 2001. This is in part a result of the rising wealth gap, mistrust of the government and anger over injustice.

The government insists that a swift and severe justice system is essential to maintain order and authority in a society that is going through a period of rapid transformation, of migration of millions of people from one place to another and of sweeping redistribution of wealth.

It sees a high level of social discontent, with disputes over land and compensation for homes that have been demolished, and jobs lost in state factories, causing tens of thousands of mass protests every year: the police and legal authorities must be given the means to control this discontent.

In this context, we should not expect sweeping changes to the justice system or a further reduction in the offences liable to the death penalty. While it is sensitive to foreign criticism that there are too many executions and they are often unjust, the government believes that it is the necessary price for social stability and economic progress.

It also believes that such a severe criminal justice system earns the respect and support of a public that is suspicious of the government in many respects.

The removal of the 13 offences represents a milestone in China and an acknowledgement of the United Nations General Assembly's resolution in 2007 which calls for the abolition of the death penalty.

But execution by the state remains and will remain an important part of its legal armoury, and abolition an objective that is decades away.

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong