China’s move towards abolition of executions must go on
Amnesty International says China executed more people last year than the rest of the world put together, a claim not possible to confirm or dispute because official figures are not released. Increasing transparency would help boost public confidence and, perhaps, provide evidence that the reforms are working
China’s rise has seen it surge to the top of many a global league table, especially those concerning economics. But a report released last week placed the mainland as the world leader in a different field. According to Amnesty International, China executed more people last year than the rest of the world put together. It is not possible to confirm or dispute the claim because official death penalty figures are not released. The statistics are instead classified as state secrets. Amnesty estimates there were thousands of executions on the mainland last year and has called on the central government to publish detailed figures. Greater transparency is needed to provide a better understanding of China’s use of the death penalty and to confirm apparent progress in reducing the number of executions. Executions have probably declined sharply in number over the past decade as a result of judicial reforms. A State Council white paper on judicial protection of rights last year said courts should strictly control executions and use them cautiously. The number of crimes carrying the death penalty has been reduced from 68 in 2011 to the current 46. Most executions appear to be for murder, robbery and drug-related offences. The number of capital crimes should, however, be further reduced so that the death penalty is only for the most serious offences. Other reforms include a requirement that the Supreme People’s Court review all death sentences, and an increased use of suspended death sentences, which are usually commuted to terms of imprisonment. These measures have, very likely, led to a reduction in the number of executions. But it is not possible to confirm that progress is being made because the figures are not available. This conflicts with considerable efforts undertaken to make the legal system more transparent. The Supreme People’s Court stated in its annual work report to the National People’s Congress in March that the death penalty had been exercised prudently and applied only to an extremely small number of criminals. But it did not provide statistics.
Keeping people on death row and executing them is a cruel punishment. It sometimes leads to the killing of people who are innocent. Last year, the Supreme People’s Court cleared a young farmer wrongly executed for murder in 1995. According to Amnesty, 104 countries have abolished the death penalty. China faces complex challenges in combating crime, but it should continue to move towards abolition. Some progress appears to have been made, although the number of executions remains high. Increasing transparency would help boost public confidence and, perhaps, provide evidence that the reforms are working.