Academic journal article China Perspectives

Public Opinion and the Death Penalty Debate in China

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Public Opinion and the Death Penalty Debate in China

Article excerpt

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A society almost unanimously in favour of the death penalty: such is the image that has become commonplace in describing China's attitude to the question. However this image is too simple not to be misleading. One must therefore question the factors that lead to this perception of a Chinese "public opinion" under a political regime that does not make possible its formation and expression in sufficiently open and transparent conditions. Here we will question opinions relating to the death penalty. One is struck by the heterogeneousness and ambiguity of the positions expressed. Does "public opinion" today play a part in the debates about the death penalty in China? In seeking to answer this question, we will proceed in three stages: First we will briefly consider the Chinese notion of "public opinion" and its ambiguity in political and social practice in the course of the twentieth century. Secondly, we will establish its status in the current debate on the death penalty. In order to do so, we will describe how legal experts are meeting for the first time with unexpected opposition on the question of "economic crimes," and we will analyse the interpretations of this phenomenon in legal circles. Finally we will again question the problematic notion of minyi in such a context, in order to ask ourselves to what extent this ambiguous reality, variously translated here by the expressions "public opinion" or "popular opinion" (without overlooking the difference between them), actively contributes to the construction of a "people's space" (minjian), which I provisionally define as an informal space that allows people to come together temporarily on their own initiative (rather than on that of the state) in order to take action or to discuss a certain common interest.

The notion, and evolution of | public opinion

From Western history since the Enlightenment, one generally retains the idea that public opinion posits a well-defined social and institutional environment. This environment has been conceptualised by Jürgen Habermas with his idea of Oeffenlichkeit, "publicity," in the sense of a "public space" that allows free and critical public debate calling for reasoned argument. This ideal-type remains a convenient reference, despite the numerous discussions in political science and political philosophy around the notion of opinion - from the well-known debate in the United States between Walter Lippman and the philosopher John Dewey(l) to the radical positions of Pierre Bourdieu(2) in France, to whom "there is no such thing as public opinion."

The concept of "public opinion" was introduced in China from the West at the end of the nineteenth century. Before then, one finds the Chinese idea of yanlu, which conventionally designates the "channels through which criticisms and suggestions can be transmitted to the authorities." Use of this word goes back to the Han dynasty,(3) designating the paths and institutions(4) through which the sovereign received criticism and advice. These practices and institutions were essentially centred around the person of the sovereign: they were aimed at the behaviour and policy of the sovereign only for his own benefit, so that he might correct his imperfections or his mistakes. One can consider that this imperial legacy finds a kind of continuation in contemporary China, even if it is in parallel with the gradual constitution of a public opinion in the modern, Western sense of the term. Thus an echo of this ancient practice can be found in Mao Zedong's decision, as soon as the People's Republic was founded, to establish, in what were of course very new conditions, a system for receiving "letters and visits" (xinfang), aimed at acquiring a better knowledge of the opinions of the people. The new elites, who do not question the legitimacy of the government, sometimes resort to this ancient notion in order to transmit their criticisms in an acceptable form. …

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