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China: Scrap the death penalty?

Was it New Jersey's undoing of the 1976 reinstatement of capital punishment earlier this month, or the United Nations General Assembly's call for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty a few days later that launched prominent Chinese bloggers into their own debate on the subject?

NetEase has gotten nearly 3,000 comments to its piece on the latter move against state executions, and at blog provider Cat898, one unnamed editor wrote the following on a page recently set up to follow the topic:


Scrap the death penalty?

废除死刑是世界的大趋势,也是人类走向文明的一种标志。目前世界上已经有100多个国家废除了死刑,即使未废除死刑的国家,执行死刑的数量也有了大幅度减少。在中国,虽然死刑被视为是一种实现正义的必要手段,但在中国传统中,执行死刑并不是一件好事,死刑数量的多寡也被视为国泰民安的象征,如中国历史上的 “贞观之治”时期,一年执行死刑的数量常不过几十例。目前,中国是世界上执行死刑人数最多的国家,每年中国执行死刑的数量超过了世界其它国家的总和,这不仅说明中国还很落后,也说明中国距“盛世”的距离还很远。为了切实减少死刑,中国近年来也进行了一些改革,如最高人民法院收回了死刑复核权,大幅度增加了死缓的适用量。死缓的大量适用减少了死刑实际执行的数量,但也出现了一些按当前刑法应当判处死刑却没有判处死刑的案例。在限制死刑的背景下,死刑案成了少数无良法官名利双收的渠道,进一步统一死刑审判、核准标准,加强监督,势在必然。值得注意的是,近些年来一直有人提出要废除经济类犯罪,特别是贪污贿赂犯罪的死刑,以其作为废除死刑的先声。这不仅招致民众的普遍反对,也使废除死刑成了一场闹剧。实际上,同杀人等暴力性犯罪相比,贪污贿赂犯罪的犯罪性质更为严重,其足以颠覆国家,危害民族。例如今年被处以极刑的前国家食品药品监督管理局局长郑筱萸,其在位期间广受贿赂,致使假药流行,受害者竟遍及全球,其行为危害了全人类,如果这种犯罪先赦免了死刑,显然是荒谬的。废除死刑应当循序渐进,在逐步减少死刑数量的同时,仍应当保持对性质严重犯罪、特别是贪污贿赂犯罪的死刑,唯有这样,减少死刑,直至废除死刑才有实现的可能。

Abolishing the death penalty is a global trend, and it's also an indicator of humankind's move toward civilization. Presently there are over 100 countries which have abolished the death penalty, and those that haven't abolished it have see vast drops in the numbers of people executed. In China, although the death penalty is seen as a kind of realistic, essential approach, in Chinese tradition, putting people to death has not been considered good, with the number of executions seen as a symbol of the country's stability and prosperity. Just like in Chinese history during “the reign of Zhenguan”, where the number of executions carried out in a year seldom went past several dozen. Now, China carries out the highest number of executions in the world each year, higher than that of all other countries in the world combined.

This doesn't just illustrate how backwards China still is, but it also shows how far China remains from “prosperous” times. China has made several reforms in recent years toward realistically reducing the number of executions, like the People's Supreme Court reclaiming right of review for all death sentences, and the large increase in stays of execution. The large numbers of stays of execution have reduced the number of death sentences actually carried out, but has also given rise to cases to which the death penalty ought to have been given out but wasn't. In the context of controls over the death penalty, executions have become a channel for both fame and profit for a minority number of bad judges, and consistency in the passing down of death sentences, higher standards for approval and stronger supervision are imperative.

What's worthy of note is that over recent years there have been people calling for an end to the death penalty for economic crimes, particularly corruption and acceptance of bribes, and these have been the voices at the forefront in calling for abolition of the death penalty. This hasn't only led to widespread opposition from the public, but has also turned abolition of the death penalty into a farce. In reality, in comparison to murder and other violent crimes, corruption, bribery and crimes of economic nature are much more serious, to the point of subverting the state and harming the people.

The former head of the State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu, for example, who was executed this year, and who during his tenure widely accepted bribes and led to pervasiveness of fake medicines, with victims from all around the world, behavior that was harmful to all of humanity; for a crime like this were to be given pardon of execution would obviously be foolish. Abolition of the death penalty ought to be done gradually and in steps, so that at the same time that numbers of executions go down, the death penalty remains for crimes of serious nature, especially corruption and bribery. Only as such can executions be lessened to the point at which abolishing the death penalty becomes possible.

Over on, Voice of China blogger Wang Huiyao writes in a post from this weekend, since deleted:

联大昨天通过全球暂缓死刑议案,希望最终可以废除死刑。有104个国家支持暂缓死刑、54国反对、29国弃权。此前,联大第三次委员会以99票赞成、52 票反对、33票弃权的结果通过决议,呼唤暂停使用死刑,并希望将来彻底废除死刑。中国的投票情况不得而知,但此前已有声明,对联大第三委员表示“遗憾”。

Yesterday the General Assembly passed a motion calling for a universal moratorium on the use of the death penalty, with hopes of ultimately seeing it abolished. Supporting the moratorium were 104 countries, with 54 in opposition and 29 abstaining. Prior to this, the Third Committee of the General Assembly had adopted a motion to put a temporary stop to use of the death penalty with 99 votes in support, 52 in opposition and 33 abstaining, with the hope of seeing it abolished in the future. How China voted is unknown, but prior to this had already expressed “regret” toward the General Assembly's Third Committee.

This news surely enough gave rise to the expected debates. Some have said that China lacks the right social conditions for the death penalty to be abolished, and others went as far as to protest strongly, “should we treat villains with humanity?” The online discussion is so intense that netizens are divided on first glance.






“A life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth,” these ancient sayings has lasted until today, as though they've become a commonly-accepted logic. But ancient and widespread sayings don't represent a true moral high ground. The development of punishment through human history, in every country, has been a move from the ruthless and severe toward leniency, from cruelty to humanity, adapting to the progress of human civilization. As for the death penalty, only the manner in which it is carried out has become more civilized. Further, the number of countries practicing it continues to decrease. From the inhumane cruelty of ancient China's practice of tying a person's limbs and head to five horses and ripping them apart, to slow dismemberment and public beheadings, to the ten torture methods of the late Qing dynasty, from burning people in town squares in the West to hanging people from crosses, all such punishments were extremely barbaric and cruel. But then, as civilization carried on the path to modernization, ideas like abolishing the death penalty altogether, or if not, to execute criminals by means of lethal injection became increasing widespread. In other words, abolishing the death penalty became a world trend. At present, more than two-thirds of countries and territories around the world have either legally or practically abolished the death penalty, and among those who retain the practice, many apply it only to an extremely small number of crimes.

Where I'm not clear is why now in China, when some people enter discussions, will they so often end it with “incompatible with the conditions in China”? If you disregard scientific progress, democracy, the legal system, freedom and equality and other such universal values of humanity, can you really allot something like debate over keeping the death penalty to “conditions”?! All the backwards values of the past eras were all seen as fitting of the situation at the place and time. In our globalized today, this value, which both serves as an indicator of human civilization's progress and changes with time, stands to finally be seen my humanity as a mainstream value.

The problem we're discussing today, preserving the death penalty, from one aspect, is a kind of continuation of serious disregard for the value of human life.

To put a living person to death is to deprive a person of the right to live. The right to live is a right a person is born with. Regardless of what method is used to put execute a person, it's an uncivilized and barbaric act. Advocating for the death penalty is like a kind of confirmation of the primitive and barbaric, it completely disregards how precious life is, indifferent to barbarity's legal existence, and runs against the progress of the times[…]

Wang finishes off by adding that when the European Union abolished the death penalty, it saw no rise in crime rates, and concludes from this that the possibility of the death penalty serves as no deterrent for serious crime at all and to say so is but a superstition.

On December 23, MSN Live Spaces blogger Su Liming reposted prominent theocon thinker and preacher-blogger Wang Yi's 29-point list, ‘How to recognize an authoritarian system’ from earlier this year; point 12 mentions the death penalty:





Authoritarian countries use the death penalty to demonstrate their own legitimacy, and democratic countries use pardons to reflect theirs. The more authoritarian a country is, the more death sentences it will carry out. Based on standards set out in Critical Essays, this point is worth 5-10 points:

1. The more authoritarian a nation is, the more it will lack a pardoning system. If within a fifty year time-frame not one criminal is given pardon, the term post-totalitarian state may be used.

2. The longer the duration between the passing of a death sentence and its execution, the more democratic a country is. The less amount of time that passes, the more authoritarian. A state which carries out the execution within a week to one year is a transitioning nation. A state which carries out the execution within one week remains essentially within the authoritarian era. For the anti-humanity Saddam Hussein, from sentencing to execution there was a delay of four days. For murderer Qiu Xinghua, the verdict was read out at 9:41 am, and by 10:10 his execution was complete, a loss of less than 30 minutes of working time, an acute example of authoritarianism.

3. Only in an authoritarian country is there a trend of resorting to murder in the protection of property. The more that the death penalty is applied to property crimes, the more authoritarian a country is. If, based on China's criminal law, you were to kill a panda bear, the government would then kill you.

Most read out of all these has got to be veteran sports writer Li Chengpeng‘s post from Dec. 20, ‘More important than canceling “the death penalty” is canceling arbitrary sentencing of “the death penalty”‘ which wonders why some livestock in China get treated better in death than its criminals; as of evening Dec. 25, the post had received over 650 comments and nearly 75000 reads:


At the United Nations, China has already expressed its resolution to oppose canceling the death penalty, so prior to taking part in a discussion on whether or not China ought to abolish the death penalty, I've taken a very open-minded lesson from the procedure by which Henan has carried out its “humane slaughter”, which leaves me quite confused: on one hand we treat pigs with humanity, but on the other hand we don't really treat humans with it. So which is it: precious pigs or precious humans?


Leaving me just as confused is when I compare what Dongguan is doing in comparison to Henan, by now not even allowing pigs to be raised, as they put too much pollution into the environment and waste too many resources. Yet Henan, slightly demonized a reputation as it has among some people, even wants to give those pigs faced with death better transit, handling and holding pens. Like keeping offloading ramps at angles of less than 20 degrees so as to prevent the possibility of pigs jumping off the edge and getting hurt, and two-way channels so pigs can at least see each other, reducing loneliness and fear. It's even mandatory to bleed them within 15 seconds of electrocution to prevent them from regaining consciousness and having to kill them again—how cruel would that be….[]




I should be congratulating the pigs of Henan, they'll be arriving at their religious realms sooner, and death for them has become a majestic art. But for me, in the live footage that is society and the criminals I've seen in it, they don't get it as good as Henan pigs. At least they aren't given spacious walkways or snappy 15 second deaths. When I was young I used to go watch those about to be executed as they were paraded around the street, bent over and a paper sign hung on them, which was done to add to their terror; now, we see pigs that are about to die which aren't allowed to be given any added terror. Not only would that be really uncivilized, but frightened pigs secrete a kind of liquid which whitens their muscles, making the meat soft and mushy and not tasty at all.

Yup, turns out the reason for treating pigs better is actually so people enjoy their food more. The hypocrisy sure is pretty cute.


Anyway, as for whether “can the death penalty accord with humanism”, I'm not totally clear myself. I'm pretty conflicted, actually. On one hand I'm opposed to abolition of the death penalty, because things like “you pay for what you take, an eye for an eye” are pretty standard, and if someone can kill another person and not get a death sentence, then people like Ma Jiajue are going to be pretty happy about that, and if a corrupt official takes off with two hundred million yuan and only gets a stay of execution, then his kids and mistress are going to be pretty happy, and then before you know it a stay of execution becomes a life sentence, and then a life sentence becomes 20 years, and then 15, and then 5 years later we see him on a pretty little island in the Pacific called “Tahiti” fishing happily away for tropical fish.



This will just make good citizens who don't kill or take bribes frustrated, and give us several times more Ma Jiajues and corrupt officials than there are now.

And this round of calling for the abolition of the death penalty was put out by Europeans. Europeans, especially those northern Europeans who ooze wealth like it were oil, a lot of their ideas really just don't fly. Life in prison has got to be a lot more frightening a thought for them than death, because they'd never see their flowers or their grass again, nor would they be able to enjoy their welfare, or ever go sit in the sun again. This is called ‘death is better than life’. But with the way things are here in China, if you don't kill those criminals but only lock them away for life, they'd still be really happy with that, like “I only killed the guy cuz I needed something to eat, and now the state's giving me meal tickets for life, sweet, give me the knife back and I'll go kill another guy, get meal tickets for the next life too.” Then criminal law becomes “welfare law”, and the jails become “the welfare house”. China's population is high enough as it is; if things were to go on like this, it would just put further burden on the world.



But like I said, I'm conflicted, because I approve of abolishing the death penalty too. On one hand it's because Henan pigs all enjoy humanism and the Chinese people don't, this is just too unfair. On the other hand it's because in honesty, I doubt that those corrupt officials and Ma Jiajues will stop just because the death penalty exists. In other words, a killer will always be a killer, and even someone stacked head to toe with knives but can't bring themselves to kill, won't plunge the knife. Someone with true motive to kill already on the move won't stop to look up the pertinent clause in the criminal code, and capital punishment won't stop crimes, just like abolishing the death penalty won't abolish crime.



America still has the death penalty, though I hear they only give death sentences to forty-something people a year. India is another country with a huge population, and their execution numbers are only just over thirty.

Again, the most important isn't to see capital punishment canceled, but to cancel seeing the death penalty passed down at will. We're so civilized about giving pigs the death penalty, so why not be a little more civilized when giving it to human beings. Even if we can't give suspects 20 degree ramps, neither can we flip right and wrong and be putting people who shouldn't die to death, or letting those who should run off to Tahiti just to go fishing.

  • Inst

    Where are the pro-execution voices? Further, the India statistic is off. There was a great number of “encounter” extra-judicial killings, where the cops got fed up, and staged “encounters” with armed and dangerous gangsters, who, conveniently, never manage to shoot a cop.

  • John Kennedy

    There are arguments made in support of the death penalty above, Inst. If those aren’t good enough for you, try looking into your soul.

    As for India, please give everyone a link or some sort of reference for what you mention; Wikipedia writes that “[b]etween 1975 and 1991, about 40 people were executed, though there was a period between 1995 and 2004 when there were no executions. Therefore India has the lowest execution rate amongst retentionist countries.”

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  • Instr

    If I didn’t know you wouldn’t do such a thing, I’d swear they weren’t there when I posted my comment. But it’s my mistake.

    Unfortunately for me, the source was Suketu Mehta’s Bombay Maximal, so I can’t exactly link to it. I’m sure there are web-based sources on encounter-killings in India, but it’s more of a matter of degree than a refutation.

  • John Kennedy

    Hey Instr,
    I followed the Suketu Mehta entry at Wikipedia and found what you’re talking about:

    It could use a lot of work, but I see what you mean now, it sounds quite horrifying how it’s described, “tit-for-tat.”

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