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China’s Message on Executions

4 minute read
Susan Jakes/Beijing

When China’s state media announced a change of rules on the death penalty earlier this week, they did so with great fanfare. The reform — an amendment to the law that regulates the country’s court system — will mean that next year, all death sentences in China will have to be reviewed by its Supreme People’s Court. (The court is currently reviewing only some cases.) Xinhua, China’s official news agency described this as “believed to be the most important reform on capital punishment in China in more than 20 years.”

It’s not surprising that the people in charge of China’s public image would want to trumpet this development: China’s enthusiasm for capital punishment has long been a target for international criticism of its human rights record. The authorities deem China’s annual tally of executions a state secret, but even the total reported in the Chinese media far exceeds that of other countries where capital punishment is practiced. In 2005, Amnesty International counted 1,770 execution announcements in Chinese papers, and a further 3,797 death sentences. (The U.S. executed 60 in 2005.) One reason for the high rates of execution is that Chinese law — even after the changes announced this week — allows the death penalty to be imposed for such non-violent crimes as embezzlement, accepting bribes and tax fraud.

China’s leaders hope that requiring an added review of death sentences by the Supreme People’s Court — whose judges tend to be better educated than those in the provincial high courts that currently have the last word on executions — will reduce both the overall number of people put to death and the number of people killed for crimes they didn’t commit.

But the change in rules isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Beijing’s spin suggests. Prior to 1983, all death sentences in China had been reviewed by the country’s highest court. This requirement is clearly stipulated in both China’s Criminal Law and its Criminal Procedure Law. In 1983 as part of a campaign to “strike hard” against crime, a different law — with lower authority in China’s legislative hierarchy — was invoked to hand off the review of death penalty cases to provincial courts. The idea was that this would expedite death sentencing and curb crime. Legal scholars and death penalty opponents (a minority in China) complained that this devolving of authority had been illegal to begin with, but in a country where the rule of law is weak, their concerns didn’t get much traction.

This week, China’s legislature “cleaned up the law by bringing laws into synch with one another,” says Keith Hand, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Law Center. The new amendment will, in effect, restore death-penalty review to the jurisdiction of the Supreme People’s Court, where legal scholars say it always properly belonged. The court has bee preparing for this for more than a year, hiring new judges to handle the increased case load.

More profound than the legal impact of this week’s legislative tinkering may be the message it sends. According to Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the move serves as an important indicator of the attitude of China’s leadership. “It expresses the government’s stance to the general public. A local police official or judge who used to think, ‘We’re striking hard. I’m supposed to strike hard,’ will see this news and instead think, ‘The national trend is to control the use of the capital punishment.’ So I think more provincial courts will choose not to use the death penalty.” Liu also believes that an adding another layer of red tape to executions may help lower the number of wrongful convictions.

The change announced this week is well short of the changes sought by death-penalty opponents and human-rights advocates, but they will likely take it as a small step in the right direction. Xiao Yang, the President of the Supreme People’s Court often says “justice and efficiency” are his watchwords. Putting a new hurdle on the road to the firing squad may not be efficient, but it might just bring a little more justice.

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