HAVANA TIMES, June 10 (IPS) — Despite government efforts to curb the number of people it puts to death, China continues to execute more people than the rest of the world combined, and corporal punishment remains popular among the citizenry.
In February, China reduced the number of crimes punishable by death to 55, down from 68. Crimes that no longer warrant the death penalty include smuggling gold and silver, cultural relics and rare animals; forging or falsely selling tax invoices; teaching crime-committing methods; robbing ancient cultural ruins; and carrying out fraudulent activities with letters of credit or financial bills. Individuals over 75 years old are also exempt from the death penalty.
The changes were the result of a push by Chinese legal scholars who argued that too many people were being unfairly executed for committing trivial crimes. The group had previously persuaded Communist Party authorities to require Supreme Court approval for all death sentences and to make confessions obtained by torture inadmissible in capital cases.
In another move to reduce the number of people China puts the death, the Supreme People’s Court in late May announced a two-year suspension of execution for condemned criminals if an execution is not deemed immediately necessary. In 2007, the Supreme Court took over the authority to review all death penalty sentences.
The court said in its report that the death penalty should only be applied to “a very small number” of criminals who have committed “extremely serious crimes.”
The impact these changes will have on the total number of people China executes is uncertain. The death penalty was seldom used for the 13 crimes scrapped in this year’s ruling, and the vast majority of executions in China are for aggravated murder and large-scale drug trafficking – something unlikely to change despite the reforms.
Although the government does not release information about the number of people it executes, the human rights group Amnesty International has estimated that China kills thousands of people each year. The group last year refused to release its estimate of the number of people put to death in China to protest China’s practice of secret executions, but the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights groups, estimates that just under 5,000 people were executed in 2009.
Public support for the death penalty remains high in China. According to a survey last year by Sina.com, China’s largest news portal, over 75 percent of Chinese favored keeping the death penalty, compared with just 13.6 percent opposed.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I support the death penalty,” says Yu Dahai, a 24-year-0ld office manager in Dandong city, Hubei province.
Yu disagrees with the People’s Court decision to suspend some death penalty sentences for two years, arguing that because of corruption in the legal system some suspended sentences will lead to early releases and more crime.
Jiang Bo, a 26-year-old IT engineer in Beijing, agrees.
“In China, if death sentences are suspended for several years, sometimes this means the person has a chance to be exempted from the death penalty,” Jiang tells IPS. “People who do evil things must die.”
There is some evidence that support for the death penalty is softening. A 1995 study by the Institute of Law, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the National Bureau of Statistics, found that 95 percent of Chinese approved of the death penalty. In a 2003 survey of 16,000 netizens by Netease.com, those in favor of corporal punishment dropped to 83 percent, and dropped again eight percentage points in the Sina.com survey.
Liu Wenjuan, a 30-year-old interior designer, thinks the death penalty is warranted in cases of murder, drug dealing and other “nefarious” crimes, but she supports the Supreme Court’s decision to review some sentences. “I think it is a better idea to let a convict rethink his crimes for another two years, so he can learn what’s right and wrong.”
Zheng Fengtian, a professor at Renmin University of China who supports abolishing the death penalty, says the practice does little to deter crimes, results in people dying for crimes they didn’t commit, and is grossly overused in China.
“China contributes two-thirds of the world’s executions,” Zheng says. “India, which has a similar population size as China, executes only 30 convicts a year. Even if we don’t abolish the death penalty we need to reduce the number we execute.”
Zhang Qingsong, director of Beijing Shangquan Law Firm and deputy director of the Beijing Lawyers Association, says the government reforms are a step in the right direction but that further reforms are needed.
“Currently we have too many crimes that would warrant the death penalty, most of which are non-violent,” Zhang tells IPS. “We can’t wait until all Chinese people agree to abolish the death penalty.”