Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Money for Life: The Legal Debate in China about Criminal Reconciliation in Death Penalty Cases

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Money for Life: The Legal Debate in China about Criminal Reconciliation in Death Penalty Cases

Article excerpt

IN FEBRUARY 2007 A MAN REFERRED TO ONLY AS "WANG X" BECAME one of the most notorious criminals in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). But it was Wang's punishment, not his crime, that brought him to national attention. In 2005, Wang and his associates robbed and murdered a man named Cai. According to the 1997 Criminal Code of the PRC, murder is a capital offense, so Wang faced a possible death sentence. However, in what would appear to be an unprecedented move for capital offenses in China, the judge at Dongguan Court in Guangdong brokered a deal. In return for a compensation payment of 50,000 RMB by Wang to Cai's family, the family consented to Wang receiving a suspended death penalty, in effect a commuted life sentence (Fazhi Ribao 2007; Xinxi Ribao 2007; Zhonghua Wang Shipin 2007). This practice is known as death penalty criminal reconciliation or DPCR.

Death penalty criminal reconciliation is not codified in Chinese law. An amendment in March 2012 to the Criminal Procedural Law (CPL) allows criminal reconciliation for domestic disputes, where the maximum sentence is three years, and official misconduct, where the maximum sentence is seven years. But the amendment does not extend to capital offenses (Zhongyang Zhengfu Menhu Wangdian 2012). Nevertheless, DPCR is increasingly being practiced in China, and the procedure underpinning it (in Articles 277-279) mirrors that used for the two offenses noted above. In summary, the offender and the victim (or the victim's family, if the victim has been killed) participate in a series of "criminal reconciliation meetings," presided over by the officiating judge. During these meetings, the parties are expected to resolve their differences through discussion. If an agreement on compensation can be reached, the judge will usually decide to commute the offender 's death sentence to life in prison. The offender is also expected to exhibit a sufficient level of contrition for the crime committed (Chen 2008).

The recent practice of DPCR has precipitated an impassioned response from the pro-death penalty Chinese media and public, particularly in reaction to controversial cases such as that of Wang X. Many people have angrily denounced DPCR as "money for life" and demanded that the death penalty be applied consistently to all capital offenses. Less well known but no less significant is the debate that has taken place within the Chinese legal community and the clash of values it has revealed among a group that was previously united in its pursuit of legal reform and a reduction in the use of the death penalty. Our article examines that debate.

Supporters of DPCR point to the financial relief it gives to victims as well as the emotional relief provided through a combination of compensation and contrition from the offender. They also view DPCR as a better form of punishment than the death penalty, arguing that it can rehabilitate the offender and restore social harmony following the disruption created by the offense. Opponents of DPCR do not focus on the issue of punishment. Instead, they champion the cause of equality before the law and are critical of the way in which decisions under DPCR are often influenced by extraneous factors such as the wealth of the parties involved or the strength of public opinion. Their aim is to ensure that a proper system of state compensation is instituted. Notwithstanding these differences of opinion, both groups articulate views that pose challenges to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as we argue below.

The Background to DPCR: Toward a "Harmonious Society"

The use of DPCR in China can be traced back to the "harmonious society" concept, which was first mooted at the third plenary session of the Tenth National People's Congress in March 2005 and more clearly articulated in the official document "Decision of the Chinese Communist Party" in October 2006 (Xinhua Wang 2006). More a broad aspiration than a concerted shift in government policy, the harmonious society idea has sought to restore the age-old Confucian ethics of societal balance and harmony. …

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