Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

When the Price Is Too High: Rethinking China's Deterrence Strategy for Robbery

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

When the Price Is Too High: Rethinking China's Deterrence Strategy for Robbery

Article excerpt


Since the early 1980s, China's strategy to deter rising crime has been to impose severe punishment, including the death penalty, on crimes that do not necessarily result in the victim's death.1 The theory, captured in the traditional Chinese saying, "kill the chicken and let the monkey watch," is that severe penalties will effectively deter individuals from committing a particular crime.2 Accordingly, nearly all forms of robbery are punishable by death under the codified criminal statutes.3

China's deterrence strategy, however, has been ineffective over the last twenty-five years. China's official statistics are often incomplete and unreliable,4 but even official statistics show that China's crime rate, including the rate of robberies, has risen dramatically since the early 1980s.5 The Ministry of Public security reports that crime nearly quadrupled in twenty years, rising from eighty crimes per 100,000 people in 1981 to approximately 360 per 100,000 people in 2001.6 Economic property crimes accounted for the greatest single increase in crime between 1981 and 1990, and continued to rise faster than most violent crimes through the 1990s.7 Robbery increased nearly sixteen times in twenty years, from 22,266 reported cases in 1981 to 352,216 in 2001, faster than theft, fraud, homicide, rape, and assault.8

Confronted with this dramatic increase in robbery, the government made concerted efforts to reduce robbery and other violent crimes.9 China's two-pronged deterrence strategy authorized the death penalty for robbery through its Criminal Law, and initiated "strike-hard" campaigns intended to deter crime through a broad show of force. China has authorized the death penalty for robbery since first codifying its Criminal Law in 1979.10 In 1983, the government enacted its first strike-hard campaign.11 The campaigns target a particular crime, such as robbery, and ramp up law enforcement and state propaganda machines to obtain mass arrests, swift trials, and mass executions.12 But over the long run, the death penalty and the strike-hard campaigns have failed to deter robbery.13

This Comment argues that China should reform its deterrence strategy by revising its Criminal Law and strike-hard campaigns to incorporate interdisciplinary deterrence strategies that combine law, economics, sociology, and psychology. The oversimplified notion that a more severe penalty will deter crime has lost traction to novel developments in deterrence theory.14 Because China's Criminal Law has developed new legal hooks on which to hang arguments for reform,15 China is in a good position to adopt several new deterrence strategies to deter robbery more effectively.

Part II of this Comment examines how China attempts to deter robbery through its Criminal Law. Part III discusses how China's strikehard campaigns fail to deter robbery. Part IV argues that China should improve deterrence by reforming the strike-hard campaigns and by discontinuing the death penalty for robbery. The conclusion points out that criminal law reform faces significant but surmountable barriers if reforms are couched in gradual and pragmatic terms.16


The 1997 Criminal Law clarified when courts may impose the death penalty for robbery, but retained its use for almost all types of robbery. While public support for the death penalty remains high, legislators and scholars have called for a reduced reliance on it as a deterrent measure. This is consistent with important rhetorical additions to the 1997 Criminal Law, including the provision that punishment should fit the crime.17 With rising crime rates, lawmakers should continue to question the efficacy of severe punishment as a deterrent measure and use provisions in the Criminal Law as a guidepost for reform.

A. Courts Impose the Death Penalty for Nearly All Types of Robbery

China codified its Criminal Law in 1979 after rewriting draft legislation thirty-three times since 1951. …

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