Rapid social and political change can often leave the statute books clogged with obsolete or inappropriate law. An example is capital punishment on the mainland. Execution is prescribed as the ultimate penalty for 68 crimes, including many for which it has rarely, if ever, been invoked. One of these is the faking of value-added tax receipts, now a common offence, but considered serious enough to remain in the criminal code as a capital crime when the authorities were restoring order after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
The list also includes similar forms of commercial fraud that have since flourished in a market economy under socialism with Chinese characteristics, as well as smuggling and the theft of relics. Thirteen of them, however, will soon be capital crimes no more, if the legislature approves proposed amendments to the code.
This will not reduce the number of executions on the mainland, or defuse international criticism of the use of the death penalty, except that some of it has been directed at the sheer number of crimes subject to capital punishment. More than half the remaining 55 capital crimes are non-violent. It is at best, therefore, a symbolic incremental step.
What resonates more with changing values is the official commentary on the proposed change carried by Xinhua, which said control of the use of the death penalty was an international trend, and that more than 90 countries had scrapped capital punishment without suffering a soaring crime rate. Sadly, that time still seems far off on the mainland, although the central government says it will eventually abolish the death sentence. But it is a welcome positive note that raises hopes for more reforms.
Beijing does claim to be exercising greater caution and restraint in handing out the death penalty, and points to a 15 per cent fall in executions since the Supreme People's Court took back the power of final review of sentences in 2007. By any measure we believe that is progress but while the death penalty remains, it is even more urgent that the courts become open, independent and transparent.