Why people really back death penalty
The sentencing to death of two young men last month sparked heated discussion among mainlanders.
Young driver Yao Jiaxin, who accidentally knocked over a woman before stabbing her to death because he was worried about future compensation claims, was swiftly executed two days ago. Hawker Xia Junfeng, who stabbed two city management officers to death during an interrogation, is awaiting the outcome of a final review by the Supreme People's Court (SPC).
While the central government views scrapping of the death penalty as its goal, in line with international trends, it has ruled out abolition in the foreseeable future, claiming that the public is unready. Judicial officials often say the concept of 'a life for a life' is still ingrained in society, and China is still at a stage of development where the death penalty is necessary as a deterrent.
However, a closer look at public sentiments expressed in Yao and Xia's cases, and other recent death penalty cases, suggests that calls for vengeance by citizens should not be simply interpreted as a blind embrace of the death penalty, nor a firm obstacle to abolition as portrayed by the government. While emotional, few of the public discussions touched on the merits of the death penalty. Other social factors are driving the public's support for the death penalty, such as anger at corruption and social inequality, and scepticism about judicial independence.
Abolition of the death penalty is always a long, arduous and emotional journey. France is one example that abolitionists on the mainland like to use. It took the country 29 years to finally abolish the death penalty in 1981, but the debate continued long after that. Sixty-two per cent of the public opposed abolition in 1981, and it took another 18 years for the number of French citizens supporting abolition to exceed the number opposing it.
In the past few years, mainland authorities have rolled out measures aimed at reducing the use of death sentences, most notably the introduction of the SPC review procedure four years ago and last month's shortening, for the first time, of the long list of crimes punishable by death, from 68 to 55.
But there is more Beijing could do to move the nation towards abolition, such as taking a more active role in educating and shaping public opinion and enhancing transparency of the death penalty system.
In Yao and Xia's cases, the public expressed very different sentiments towards the defendants, suggesting that the public is not fixed on seeking the death penalty whenever the law permits it.
In Yao's case, most people called for his execution. While the brutality of the 21-year-old music student's attack on Zhang Miao was blood-curdling, the public appeared most infuriated by his motive - to prevent the peasant woman from causing him future trouble. Yao fit the public's image of the so-called rich second generation: arrogant and spoiled.
The public was much more lenient towards 33-year-old Xia, a street sausage vendor and a father. Many saw Xia as fighting against an unreasonable city management system, and believed his claims that he was acting in self-defence.
In another recent case, people called for the execution of Xu Maiyong, the former Hangzhou vice-mayor convicted last month of gaining almost 200 million yuan (HK$240 million) from bribes and embezzlement. This reflected a general perception that death is the only suitable punishment for a corrupt official or someone with wealth and power, who would otherwise be let out in a few years after multiple sentence reductions and a medical parole.
These cases showed that the public's support for the death penalty is greatly influenced by social concerns such as the unequal distribution of wealth, corruption, the use of violence by those enforcing the law and worries about the mainland's weak judiciary.
While these sentiments suggest the government must work harder to fight corruption and salvage the image of the courts, they shouldn't prevent the government from promoting rational discussion of the pros and cons of the death penalty.
Enhancing transparency of the death penalty system is another immediate action the authorities could take which would help build public confidence in the judiciary.
Many legal professionals have called for the SPC review procedure to be made more open, with more detailed rules. At present, there is no time frame within which a review must take place, and often family members are only notified of the decision when they are called in to meet the defendant one last time.
The review is also done in an internal SPC meeting, instead of an open hearing. And while the judges should meet a defence lawyer if asked, that does not always happen.
Xia's lawyer, Chen Youxi, is still waiting for a response from the SPC after filing his request to meet the review judges on May 30, claiming that new evidence had been discovered and that there were flaws in earlier court proceedings.
Yao's life is already lost, together with that of his victim, leaving behind little but two broken families. Hopefully through Xia we'll at least see the beginning of a more transparent review procedure.