The mainland's top court has instructed judges to limit the use of the death penalty and commute all capital penalties that do not warrant immediate execution to two-year suspended death sentences.
The order, a reiteration of existing legal procedures, came in the Supreme People's Court annual report released on Tuesday. Legal experts said it was significant, given rising public calls for capital punishment in several high-profile cases recently.
Angered by perceived court injustices and the runaway wealth gap, the public is becoming sceptical about death penalties being reduced to lesser punishments - particularly when it involves corrupt officials or notorious murderers. However, Beijing is facing pressure from rights groups around the world to reduce the use of the death penalty.
The report said the death penalty review mechanism had entered a stage of stable development. It said the court should allow mitigation of punishment whenever it was legally possible.
'Whenever the case does not require immediate execution, the Supreme People's Court had allowed the death penalty to be suspended,' it said. In particular, in crimes stemming from civil disputes, the court would encourage reconciliation between the two sides and would refrain as much as possible from ordering immediate execution. It said the aim was to 'reduce social conflicts'.
The latest development highlights challenges Beijing is facing in reforming its legal system. It is trying to introduce standardised professionalism to local courts, at a time when the authorities are becoming more sensitive to public opinion.
In general, mainland authorities are moving towards limiting the use of capital punishment, rolling out a series of measures including the 2007 requirement for all death penalty decisions to be further reviewed by the Supreme People's Court.
'The courts enjoy huge discretion in deciding whether a person should be given a suspended death sentence or a death sentence, as there are no specific rules on this at the moment apart from the general mitigation rules,' Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Liu Renwen said. 'Therefore, the SPC's reiteration of this policy direction would have a great impact on how the lower courts rule.'
Popular sentiment sometimes run against this trend.
'There are already a few unhappy suggestions from the public saying that this report was released so as to allow suspended death sentences for defendants like Yao Jiaxin ,' Joshua Rosenzweig, senior research manager of The Dui Hua Foundation, said. 'We would have to wait and see whether this policy could be fully implemented given the public concerns over public safety and corruption.'
Yao was a young driver who hit his victim by accident, but then stabbed her to death to avoid future trouble. The case has greatly angered the public, which called for retributive justice. He was sentenced to death in April. Former Hangzhou vice-mayor Xu Maiyong was sentenced to death this month for corruption and bribery involving 200 million yuan (HK$239 million).