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Opinion: Moving away from capital punishment, one step at a time

Frank Sieren / jpNovember 1, 2014

Beijing is considering reducing China's list of capital offenses. It's the first step on the road to reform but there's still a long way to go, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Chinese legal system has traditionally been based on the principle of deterrence. As an old saying goes: Kill the chicken to scare the monkey (“sha ji jing hou”). Most Chinese tend to nod in agreement when they hear it, especially in rural areas. They firmly believe that it's the only way to keep order in a country with a population of 1.3 billion.

But these days, any news that someone has been wrongly sentenced to death elicits a growing sense of indignation. That indignation can fast turn on the regional representatives of the ruling Communist party, which is partly why Beijing is planning to remove nine crimes from the list of offenses punishable by death, including smuggling weapons, ammunition and nuclear materials; counterfeiting currencies; raising funds by means of fraud; and arranging for or forcing another person to engage in prostitution. The crime of "fabricating rumors to mislead others during wartime" is also under review.

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DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

High number of executions

With 2,400 people put to death every year, three times as many executions take place in China than in the rest of the world put together. The number is nevertheless in decline. While 12,000 people were put to death in 2002, the death penalty was carried out only 6,500 times in 2007. The figure has since shrunk to a third of what it was. In 2007 Beijing granted the Chinese Supreme People's Court the power to review death penalty cases. Last year, judges ordered provincial courts to reexamine nearly 40 percent of death sentences on the grounds of procedural errors.

There are still stark differences between China and other countries that still use the death penalty. In the US, the most prominent of the countries criticized for using the death penalty, its application is limited to aggravated murders. A total of 1,386 people have been executed there since 1976, just over half as many as those executed in China last year alone.

Arbitrary decisions

The extensive catalogue of crimes regularly leads to some strange verdicts from China's judges, because imprecisely formulated crimes allow judges a lot of room for interpretation in their decisions. One can say that this opens the door to arbitrary decisions of a political nature.

Last year the verdict in the case against the former minister for railways, Liu Zhijun, caused a stir: a death sentence with reprieve for corruption. After two years good behavior, such sentences are generally commuted to life imprisonment. Such verdicts are favored by judges in cases involving well known and well-connected people.

In other cases, the sentence is often decided even before the trial. Since President Xi Jinping launched an anti-terror campaign in China in response to a series of attacks, trials now tend to be brief. In early October, 12 suspected terrorists were condemned to death by a court in the unstable Xinjiang province. Such draconian moves are unlikely to change much.

International criticism

China has long come under fire from the international community for its use of the death penalty. Xi is now taking a step in the right direction, but there is still a long road ahead.

Reforms have yet to be finalized. The list of capital offenses is slated to be reduced even more in a few months' time. Perhaps the next to go will be another antiquated, vaguely formulated crime: aggravated vegetable theft.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.