Lian Enqing stands trial at the Intermediate People’s Court in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, on January 27, 2014. Lian was sentenced to death after he stabbed to death one doctor and wounded two others in 2013. Photo: Xinhua
Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang

Why it’s time for China to revive debate over the death penalty

  • China has made progress, treating prisoners more humanely and narrowing the list of offences that merit capital punishment
  • As support for the death penalty wanes, public debate will allow citizens to understand why abolitionists oppose the idea
Earlier this month, the news of Tang Lu’s death sentence brought with it loud cheering in China. Netizens expressed views such as, “It brought universal joy to the people!” and “Even death would not be sufficient punishment for him.”
Last autumn, Tang set fire to his ex-wife, Lamu, a Tibetan vlogger with nearly a million followers, as she was live-streaming. She later died in hospital from severe burns.
As a feminist, I condemn Tang’s brutal act, but his death sentence did not bring me any joy. I passionately oppose capital punishment.

Growing up in China, I was fed the idea of “a life for a life”. At school in the 1970s, the best outings entailed trips to Nanjing stadium for the public sentencing rally. The authorities used to invite the masses, schoolchildren included, to witness the iron fist of proletarian dictatorship and draw lessons from negative examples.

After the sentencing, the condemned wore a placard stating their crimes and were paraded in open-top army trucks to the execution ground nearby. We children often ran after the truck – laughing, cheering and even throwing stones at the condemned – all the way to the killing field where bullets would rip open the prisoners’ heads.


Fentanyl trafficker in China sentenced to death

Fentanyl trafficker in China sentenced to death

It was George Orwell’s essay A Hanging about the execution of a criminal in (then) Burma that made me question our traditional wisdom. The author vividly describes how the prisoner, on the way to the execution ground, steps aside to avoid a puddle of rainwater and asks himself what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. The readers are inspired to ask themselves the same question.

By then, I was a grown woman, living in England for the first time. The country had abolished capital punishment in 1969. I started to ask people around me about the issue and just about every single person told me that such a practice was barbaric.
“Why?” I argued, trying China’s “ life for a life” theory. I was told that a criminal was also a human being who also had a right to life.

I slowly came around to their idea and became an abolitionist. In the past few decades, I have written quite a few articles on the topic and followed the development of the issue.


Death sentence for Shanghai primary school knife attacker

Death sentence for Shanghai primary school knife attacker

In some ways, I am pleased with the progress over the years. Inmates on death row are being treated more humanely, spared the humiliation of public parades and even allowed to order their favourite dishes for their last meal. The number of criminal offences eligible for capital punishment has been steadily reduced to today’s 42.

China says it applies the death penalty only “to criminal elements who commit the most heinous crimes”. Although a state secret, the number of executions in China is believed to be in steady decline, which is in line with the global trend. Amnesty International reported 483 executions in 18 countries in 2020, a 26 per cent fall from the previous year. Nevertheless, China remains the world’s biggest executioner.
As part of the European and World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10, French President Emmanuel Macron made an impassioned plea to end the practice worldwide. At the same time, China rejected the draft resolution of the UN Human Rights Council on the question of capital punishment, arguing that the issue “should be based on respect of judicial rights and society needs of a country”.
Like other countries that retain the death penalty, China uses “ national realities” as an excuse. What is China’s reality, then?


Death penalty for ‘godfather’ of Chinese coal mining town who took over US$160 million in bribes

Death penalty for ‘godfather’ of Chinese coal mining town who took over US$160 million in bribes

Some might argue that a low crime rate, stable society and economic prosperity are preconditions for considering abolition. China seems to have met all these.

In 2008, amid another round of heated debate on the death penalty prompted by Yang Jia’s high-profile sentencing to death for killing six policemen, I interviewed Professor Chen Weidong of Renmin University, an expert on the subject. He said he did not believe China was ready for abolition.

“China is going through drastic social and economic changes, which has to lead to rising crimes, including violent crime. We need the death penalty as a deterrent,” he told me. But no credible evidence suggests that capital punishment deters crime, and countries that have abolished it have not witnessed rising crime rates afterward.

One major obstacle lies in the deeply rooted legal culture of replacing teeth with teeth and repaying blood with blood, a harsh sense of justice that is based on revenge and at odds with a more humanistic approach.

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Although most of Chinese society supports the death penalty, the percentage is gradually going down. In 1995, a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found an overwhelming 95 per cent supported it. In 2003, an online survey conducted by NetEase, a popular web portal on the mainland, showed a noticeable change, with 16 per cent of respondents opposing the death penalty.

It is time to revive the debate. Chinese universities used to organise discussions on the topic. In 2000, I attended a seminar on the morality of the death penalty that was organised by Peking University. There have been fewer such seminars under President Xi Jinping’s draconian rule.

Public debate on the topic will allow citizens to understand why abolitionists oppose the idea. The concept of human rights and abolition of the death penalty might have originated in the West but, by now, China has adopted many of their ideas.

A healthy debate should help push China towards a more rights-oriented society and eventually one that no longer kills criminals. If China, the most prolific practitioner of capital punishment, can drop it, then the dream of ending it worldwide would be in sight.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator and the author of a novel, Lotus