The violence that poisons the air we breathe

Chang Ping says vengeful rhetoric on crime could fan more hatred and violence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 4:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 4:14pm

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. During my recent trip to the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty in Madrid, the famous saying from Mahatma Gandhi was heard everywhere. To me, this “blindness” resulting from revenge killing is even more harmful, because it blocks out any other possibilities of reconciliation. It is especially the case in China.

This year’s congress was supposed to focus on movements in the Arab world to abolish the death penalty in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution. But since China alone accounts for 85 per cent of all the death sentences in the world, it naturally became the focal point of almost every panel discussion. However, I was a bit distracted by the storm of Chinese media coverage over Chen Shuizong, the suspected arsonist in the disastrous Xiamen bus fire that killed 47 people on June 7. In particular, I was haunted by the angry, blood-fuelled words in Chinese media editorials.

What troubled me even more was the Chinese media’s uniform stance on the issue. All levelled their guns at Chen, the dead suspect, and refused to reflect on the tragedy from any other perspective. Any expressions of sympathy for the suspect’s miserable life were seen as attempts to exonerate him, or to encourage similar crimes, and therefore met with indignant criticism. It was a matter of black and white. The media wanted to unify our thoughts and our words, and bury the suspect with resolute, angry and hateful language.

“Condemnation must come first in the face of anti-social crimes,” declared a Global Times editorial. “We believe the whole of society must be completely and unconditionally unified in such condemnation.” Xiamen Daily, based in the city where the disaster occurred, went even further: “Indiscriminate sympathy [for the suspect] is fundamentally evil. It is a ‘murder’ against the dignity of the law, public feelings, as well as social psychology.”

This mentality of hate and vengeance could split our society, fanning more hate and violence that further harm the innocent

I was shocked. Nowhere else in the world have I even seen any kind of sympathy being branded as “evil.”

But a random browse of Chinese news sites and social media would reveal that such blood-thirsty language and sentiments are wide-spread. The online public, in particular, demands instant death to the suspect, just as they demanded death for the suspects in recent child molestation cases, of corrupt senior Communist Party officials including Liu Zhijun, the former minister of the railways charged with embezzling 60 million yuan.

There is more. A new judicial interpretation that came into effect on June 19 has made serious environmental pollution a crime punishable by death, too. It is no surprise that the Chinese public, long suffering from poisonous air, is overwhelmingly supportive of the move. “Chaotic times call for draconian laws,” as the traditional Chinese saying goes.

The Chinese people seem to be deeply convinced of the deterrent power of the death penalty, although many scientists and studies have proved that it has none. The fact is, most countries in the world have officially or effectively abolished capital punishment. As a result, China now executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined. However, the occurrence rates of serious or violent crimes that carry the death penalty, such as child murders, arsons, rapes or embezzlement, are no lower than those countries who have given up capital punishment for good.

The media and public opinion, too, tend to be very harsh on convicted violent criminals, even dead ones, such as in the case of the Xiamen bus fire. They seem to derive a sense of justice, or a satisfaction that potential crimes could be deterred, by adopting violent, hateful language towards the perpetrators. However, what they fail to realise is that such language itself is part of the toxic, violent atmosphere we live in. This mentality of hate and vengeance could split our society, fanning more hate and violence that further harm the innocent.

One explanation, offered by Dr Teng Biao, a legal expert and activist who has campaigned relentlessly to abolish the death penalty, seems to make sense. The death penalty is necessary for Chinese politics, he told me at the congress. The Communist Party, who seized power by violent revolution and now consolidates its power with nationalism, seeks to legitimise violence by teaching hate against “class enemies” and “enemy states” through schools and propaganda machines.

Hence, we grow up believing in “an eye for an eye,” believing the cleansing power of the death penalty. We remain blind to the fact that violence and hate themselves are the fundamental sources of pollution, poisoning our hearts and our minds.