China Rethinks the Death Penalty

By Hvistendahl, Mara | International New York Times, July 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

China Rethinks the Death Penalty


Hvistendahl, Mara, International New York Times


Outcry over wrongful convictions has challenged the legitimacy of the judiciary.

Last month, China's Supreme People's Court overturned the death sentence of a woman who brutally killed and dismembered her husband. The landmark decision to send the high-profile case back to a provincial court was yet another sign that the country's embrace of the death penalty is loosening.

China is believed to execute more people each year than the rest of the world combined, and 43-year-old Li Yan initially seemed a likely candidate for death row. In 2010, she beat her husband to death with an air gun, chopped him into pieces and boiled his body parts. But police photos and a medical report backed up Ms. Li's claims that her husband had abused her -- stubbing out cigarettes on her body, banging her head against the wall and threatening her with the air gun. The Supreme Court determined, rightly, that these circumstances justified a retrial.

China is putting the brakes on the death penalty. According to Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, between 2007 and 2011 the annual number of executions in China fell by half. Many violent offenders are now given so-called suspended death sentences, which are invariably downgraded later to life in prison. Such restraint has drawn broad public support.

How does a country that harvests and allegedly sells the organs of executed prisoners begin to lean toward more humane alternatives to the death penalty?

Like most of the world, China allowed the death penalty for much of its history, along with an array of other harsh punishments that included at various times servitude, tattooing and castration. But beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Confucian scholars emphasized a humanitarian approach to justice. The purpose of punishment, they argued, was to morally rehabilitate offenders and restore social harmony, not to secure revenge.

One crucial precept was chuli ruxing -- that only when gentler means fail should punishment be used. While brutal executions certainly occurred, for centuries emperors regularly intervened to issue acts of da she, or great mercy, by pardoning offenders entirely. Some went further. In the 8th century, Emperor Xuanzong briefly abolished the death penalty, making China one of the few feudal countries to do so.

By late imperial times, Chinese execution practices were moderate compared with those in Europe. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), imperial edicts suggest that China largely avoided the carnival- like killings then common in France, Germany and Britain. Public executions were solemn, orderly events, with guards discouraging rowdy spectators.

That changed drastically when Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. Using the death penalty as a political tool, he introduced bloody punitive campaigns in which suspects were rounded up en masse and summarily killed. From 1950 to 1953, during the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries, the regime executed more than 710,000 political foes. State-condoned killings spiked again during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and later during the "strike hard" campaigns initiated under Deng Xiaoping.

Rather than turn away onlookers, Mao encouraged them. Ignoring the humanitarian threads in Chinese culture, he avowed in 1951 that executions often "assuage the people's anger." Leaders who followed him made similar arguments.

Today, executions in China more often stoke anger than quell it. A 2007-2008 survey of nearly 4,500 people in three provinces funded by the European Commission found that only 58 percent supported the death penalty -- compared with nearly 60 percent in the United States. …

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