Human rights in China

China’s death penalty is popular and releasing data will fuel calls for more executions, judge says

  • ‘A life for a life’ is ingrained among ordinary folk, says judge
  • Social credit blacklists also praised by judge as incentive for people to carry out court-mandated tasks such as paying debts
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 10:48pm

Top judges from China’s Supreme People’s Court have made a rare defence of the death penalty, with one saying “a life for a life” is ingrained among the people, and backed “social credit” blacklists as necessary to make people repay their debts.

President Xi Jinping has urged widespread reforms to the legal system, pledging to tackle miscarriages of justice and to strengthen the leadership of the ruling Communist Party over the courts.

But rights groups say the reforms fail to ensure fair trials, guard against rights abuses or restrict use of the death penalty. Amnesty International said on Tuesday that China is failing to restrict the use of the death penalty to the most serious crimes only, in line with international norms.

Beijing considers the number of people executed in China each year to be a state secret. International human rights organisations estimate the figure at around 2,000.

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Li Xiao, a top judge, told reporters late on Thursday that despite efforts to reduce executions, China could not abolish the system and risk angering a public that she said overwhelmingly supports its use.

“For thousands of years, the idea of ‘a life for a life’ has been deeply ingrained among ordinary folk,” she said during a promotional visit to the Supreme Court. “If we released the figure, then ordinary folk would say too few were killed.”

INFOGRAPHIC: Capital punishment in China

The Supreme People’s Court is responsible for review and approval of all death sentences before they are carried out.

Judges also defended China’s nascent “social credit” system, saying that restrictions on luxury purchases, such as flights or high-speed train tickets, were a good way to persuade people to fulfil their court-mandated debt repayments.

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China’s lack of a system for dealing with individual bankruptcy – as there is in countries such as the United States – means that such restrictions are necessary, Liu Guixiang, another judge, told reporters.

“If I am bankrupt and say that I cannot repay my debts, then I enjoy a luxurious, extravagant life day-to-day,” Liu said. “I reckon you would be put in jail for that in the West.”

The court’s blacklists for individuals who fail to carry out court-mandated tasks, including paying debts, are a part of a plan to build the social credit system to punish citizens more effectively for illegal behaviour and encourage actions deemed socially beneficial.

The system is being tried out in a handful of cities and punishments are largely linked to industry-specific blacklists, but some observers have expressed concerns that it may be abused to compel people or companies to toe the Communist Party line.