The Death Penalty in Contemporary China

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A graph showing world executions in , according to data compiled by Amnesty International. Amnesty International Amnesty said its figure for worldwide executions excluding China represents a 37 percent drop from The United States recorded 20 executions, its fewest in 25 years, in part because of court rulings and shortages of chemicals used in lethal injections.

China has faced longstanding pressure from the international community to curb its use of the death penalty, which reached a frenzy in with 24, executions after provincial courts were given powers to mete out capital punishment, according to Dui Hua. The nation also has faced criticism for harvesting organs from executed inmates, including for sale to patients from overseas. Since that time, the government has narrowed which crimes can bring capital punishment but still lists more than three dozen eligible offenses, including treason, separatism, spying, arson, murder, rape, robbery and human trafficking.

Chinese legal scholar Hong Daode contended that 90 percent of executions last year were for homicide cases. Amnesty International. In regional terms, the outstanding difference between Western Europe of the post-war period and the current circumstances of Asia is the much wider variety of political, social, and economic environments in Asia.

The Death Penalty in Contemporary China | SpringerLink

There was poverty in the immediate wake of World War II, and there were gaps in wealth between north and south in Western Europe, but there was considerably less variation in circumstances—both within and among nations—than is the case in contemporary Asia. Today the range of economic conditions in Asia is as great as the range worldwide, from Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong on the high end to Nepal, East Timor, and Laos on the low. The political systems of Asia also vary greatly, from the totalitarianism of North Korea and the military authoritarianism of Myanmar to a wide variety of functioning democracies, and these sharp political differences distinguish more than merely a few extreme cases.

The PRC and Vietnam are both functioning governments dominated by authoritarian communist parties, while Singapore is administered by an authoritarian democracy with an extreme intolerance for dissent. Changes in forms of government in Asia are frequent over time as well. All of this variation, over time and among nations, makes Asia an essential laboratory for examining how political, economic, and social forces shape death penalty policy.

One purpose of describing these Asian diversities is to establish the contexts that inform our discussion of Asian differences in the final section of this article. As striking as this illustration is of the range of variation in Asia, an equally instructive contrast concerns two contiguous nations with a common colonial history and legal heritages that were only separated after a post-colonial attempt at national unity. Consider the execution rates for Singapore population 4 million in and Malaysia population 23 million for the period to Both nations also have a variety of mandatory capital statutes and substantial numbers of death sentences, and the proportion of Muslims in Malaysia 53 percent is three and one-half times higher than in Singapore 15 percent.

Nonetheless, over this six-year period the annual rate of executions in Singapore 5. It is difficult to tell how long the Malaysia-Singapore contrast in executions will endure. In describing Asian diversities, one important question concerns the types of offenses and offenders who get executed in high-execution jurisdictions and periods. Though the data are patchy, Asia has had several high execution eras: China and Singapore throughout the past generation, Taiwan until or so, Vietnam, North Korea, and South Korea in the s and s, and probably Vietnam and North Korea more recently.

The harmonious way out

Although many crimes are death-eligible in Asia, and the particular subjects of capital punishment vary from nation to nation, only a few common crimes — murder and drug offenses especially — account for the large majority of executions in the region. The first common characteristic in high-volume environments is the large number of different crimes for which death is a possible punishment.

China has had 68 such offenses since its criminal code was reformed in , Taiwan retains 50 capital crimes even after its capital laws were narrowed, Vietnam had 44 capital offenses until the number was cut back to 29 in , and the death penalty in Singapore continues to be prescribed for a wide range of offenses. The particular subjects of capital punishment vary from country to country. South Korea aggressively enforced national security offenses well into the s, as did Taiwan before democratization began in the same decade. Forcible rape and other sexual offenses carry the possibility of capital punishment in several Asian jurisdictions — most notably in the Philippines between its two abolitions Drug offending is a capital crime in many high and low execution nations, especially in Southeast Asia.

Almost half of those 34 nations are located in Asia. Despite the international trend toward abolition during the last two decades, the number of countries expanding capital punishment to include drug offenses has increased, especially in Asia. Concern about drug trafficking is also prominently featured in pro-death penalty rhetoric throughout the region, with many Asian governments insisting —dubiously, we believe—that capital punishment deters drug crime.

The list of potentially capital crimes is a misleading guide to actual patterns of execution in most Asian nations because a handful of offenses at the top of the priority list usually accounts for the majority of executions. Murder without mitigation and major drug crimes are the two offenses most commonly considered serious. Police and prosecutorial discretion sometimes reduces the punishment for such offenses to something less than death, but the mandatory death label indicates that these are crimes where execution outcomes are expected and normal.

By offense, murder and banditry have been especially high-volume execution crimes in the PRC and Taiwan, while the available evidence suggests that in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, the majority of capital cases are for drug crimes. In the Philippines, by contrast, three of the seven persons executed between February and January had been convicted of capital rape without homicide. Executed offenders do not all come from the bottom rungs of the social ladder, but there is substantial overrepresentation of the least well off. In the Muslim-majority nation of Malaysia, an estimated 90 percent of death row inmates are poor.

At peak rates of execution in the PRC, one percent of the annual total of executions would be persons, and our sources indicate that government officials have not been executed in any decade in China since the s. If such cases are not a prominent feature of the current landscape of Asian executions except perhaps in North Korea , then this marks a major departure from death penalty practice in the PRC and Taiwan in the first few decades after mid-century, in South Korea under Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, and in Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.

But the problem with declarations that dissidents are seldom executed is that political executions are likely to be among the most secretive government actions, so they may be underrepresented in the tightly controlled death penalty statistics that characterize some Asian regimes. Similarly, the problem with celebrating the seemingly small number of judicial executions of political dissidents in contemporary China is that these are precisely the kinds of offenders the government would most like to keep off its own death penalty rolls and those of the NGOs that monitor the country.

It is impossible to tell to what extent such an execution pattern can be kept secret, but even if there remain places in the PRC where overtly political executions can occur without notice to the outside world, the capacity to hide them is shrinking every day.

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In South Korea and Taiwan, we can be confident that executions of political opponents have not occurred on any significant scale since their democratic turns, while in the more secretive environments of Singapore and Vietnam the evidence suggests that large numbers of political dissidents and enemies are not executed.

In sum, the wide diversity in Asian rates of execution is not reflected in a diversity of types of offenders subject to execution. The bulk of executed persons are common offenders convicted of homicide, robbery, or drug crimes. This is a shift away from the explicitly political executions that were commonplace in previous generations in South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Moreover, the huge variation in execution rates for homicide, drug, and robbery offenders across the jurisdictions of Asia does not reflect differences in crime rates between high and low execution nations — with one exception.

Crime problems do not distinguish high-execution Singapore from low-execution Malaysia and Thailand, and the same can be said of Vietnam and Indonesia. Similarly, China does not seem to have significantly higher crime rates than Taiwan or South Korea. It is only in Japan that a low crime rate may be an important contributing cause of a low rate of execution, and even there the surge in death sentences that has occurred in recent years—and the acceleration in executions that started in —have been accompanied by a homicide rate that has remained flat since The prevailing pattern in Western European nations that dropped the death penalty without changing the form of government was for long declines that produced substantial periods with few executions to precede the onset of non-execution.

The paths to abolition in other regions of the world have been more varied, but it is reasonable to anticipate that those nations with the lowest rates of execution in the s and s will be prime candidates for intentional stoppages in execution in the s. In Europe, the main exceptions to this pattern were the abolitions that occurred in Italy and Germany in the mids after their repressive regimes had been decisively rejected, and the abolitions that took place in the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe after their regimes were overthrown following the fall the Berlin wall.

But of the three governments that moved dramatically toward ending executions in the recent history of East Asia — the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan — only the Philippines was at the low end of the execution scale long prior to the move, while nations such as Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and India all had much lower execution rates than South Korea and Taiwan did before they began to dismantle capital punishment. The main reason South Korea and Taiwan moved decisively to limit executions was political change in a democratic direction. Thus, explaining the rapid pace of change in these two nations is not difficult: the most important moving parts are shifts in power, political sentiment, and leadership.

In some circumstances the absence of political change also helps explain stasis in execution policy.

The persistence of executions in Japan is at least partly a byproduct of a half-century of almost continuous conservative control of government. While the rate of executions is one important dimension of death penalty policy in those Asian nations that retain and use the death penalty, there are significant differences between nations with similar execution records. In some low-execution settings, the central government seems to direct little attention or control at capital punishment.

In other low-execution settings, long periods pass without any executions even though no formal reshaping of policy seems to occur. In both Indonesia and Thailand, substantial periods without execution have been punctuated by occasional executions despite no alteration in substantive policy. In Japan, by contrast, a low rate of execution is consciously maintained and carefully administered by a central government that regards regular executions as a necessity.

Some executing nations — China, Thailand, and before its second abolition the Philippines — have tried to soften their image by using lethal injection, but in Japan there is little momentum toward this reform or toward a softening of the secretive and arbitrary execution policy that has long characterized that country. All of this suggests that the importance of a handful of hangings in Japan is out of all proportion to the value of that enterprise for criminal justice or crime control. A complementary way to describe the difference between Indian or Indonesian policy and that of Japan is to distinguish the hit-and-miss pattern of inertial retention by which the former governments respond without enthusiasm to their long-standing death penalty systems, and the pattern of intentional retention in Japan where the government spends significant time and attention on capital punishment and regards it as a positive part of its criminal justice system without until pushing for more executions.

Most importantly, if the value of executions is so substantial, why conduct so few? There are two answers that help explain this Japanese pattern. Why execute 30 inmates a year if fewer serve the purpose just as well? Reservations about the propriety of execution almost certainly play a role in this low-rate but committed execution regime, for the perception that a larger number of executions will be politically costly or risky seems to be the only discernable motive for maintaining execution totals in the single digits from to Although this conflict is not reflected in the blunt instrument of public opinion polls or in political debates in the Diet, it is evident in the sharply different policies that various ministers of justice have adopted.

In India and Indonesia, by contrast, the issue of the death penalty simply appears to be less important, perhaps because the governments of these still developing nations believe they have more pressing concerns.

It is unclear which type of low execution environment, intentional or inertial, is the better harbinger of policy shifts toward abolition among the diverse range of retentionist nations in the Asian region. In low-salience inertial contexts such as India, Indonesia, and perhaps Mongolia, abolition might require less political energy, but at the same time there may also be less interest in mobilizing opposition to capital punishment.

Though the death penalty appears to be a more important question in rich Japan than in those developing nations, this difference cannot be translated into a confident prediction of which country will abolish first. This section identifies three features of contemporary Asia that distinguish capital punishment policies there from the policies in Europe and other parts of the world. In Europe, transnational organizations assumed leadership on death penalty issues in when the Council of Europe promoted Protocol No.

Since then, transnational standards have become important substantive principles in negotiations with the new national governments of Eastern and Central Europe and with the governments of Russia, Turkey, and the Ukraine, ultimately leading to the fastest and most complete regional abolition in history. The situation in Asia is different in several critical respects. First, there are no international Asian organizations with substantial pan-Asian authority or influence in the first decade of the 21st century, for many reasons. The big political differences on the continent make common standards harder to find, and on most questions there is little enthusiasm for regional authority that might constrain national autonomy.

When heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN signed a new charter in November , the result was a lowest common denominator content in which the denominator was very low indeed. The weakness of international involvement is one piece of a larger pattern of national autonomy on death penalty issues in Asia, for there are few efforts by individual nations in the region to influence death penalty policy in other countries. Australia also says little against the death penalty in international forums, directs almost no criticism at capital punishment in China or the U.

Only when the life at stake was Australian did the government down under protest with any vigor against capital punishment. Japan, the most developed nation in Asia, has not attempted to influence death penalty policy in other Asian countries, for at least two reasons. First, Japan has had little desire to be a pan-Asian political leader 35 and also has lacked the reservoir of good will to bring this type of leadership off, for many neighboring nations are only a half century removed from Japanese colonialism.

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The second obstacle to Japan taking a leadership position in Asia is that its government does not have a deeply felt and confident position on capital punishment. In this sphere as in other political realms, ambivalence is hardly a selling point. Nations that recently abolished the death penalty are poor candidates for pan-Asian leadership, too, because they lack the economic clout and cultural influence to command respectful attention. Whatever their virtues may be, Cambodia, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Philippines are seldom considered models for economic or political development.

The weakness of challenges to national autonomy on capital punishment does not mean that issues pursued by international bodies are unimportant in Asian death penalty debates. Rather, international opinion becomes important in places like South Korea and Taiwan when it is injected into domestic discourse by domestic political actors.

The Death Penalty in China

Human rights are important in Taiwan because Taiwanese politicians and civil society have tried to make them so, and similar agents have been at work in South Korea. But one consequence of this practice of domestic adoption and adaptation of human rights frames is that achievements that occur in one Asian nation are not contagious in any direct sense. Human rights NGOs operating in Asia have had only modest success across borders. Might this change soon? Some Asian nations would regard better coordinated regional human rights campaigns as unwelcome violations of national sovereignty, with Japan, China, and Singapore being the three most prominent examples.

The most likely source of this style of leadership is South Korea, especially if it crosses the boundary from de facto to de jure abolition. South Korea is small for a regional power, but its cultural influence is substantial in many Asian nations, and it does have incentives to assert its influence in competitive contrast to Japan. For the foreseeable future, the lack of challenges to national autonomy on death penalty questions will probably remain an important fact of life in Asia, though even modest efforts by developed nations such as South Korea to start discussions with other countries in the region could make a meaningful difference.

In recent years, the main attempts at regional influence have involved complaints about nationals from one Asian nation under sentence of death in another. One typical circumstance is a death sentence in Singapore, Vietnam, or Indonesia for an Australian national, often in a drug case. National governments in abolitionist jurisdictions are understandably concerned when their citizens are sentenced to death elsewhere. It is inconsistent and even hypocritical, however, when only these circumstances provoke protests by non-death penalty governments.

When concern is limited to the welfare of citizens from the complaining nations, the objection cannot be credibly framed in terms of broad principles of human rights or of limited government power. In most developed political systems of the West, frequent shifts in power are accepted and expected. Transfers of power are not only the norm in Western Europe and the former nations of the Commonwealth, they are considered a hallmark of democratic government. Where non-democratic governments have persisted, as in Spain and Portugal until the s and in the Soviet-dominated satellite states during the decades of the Cold War, the regimes endured because they were unwilling to share or relinquish power and because they possessed the means to realize their will.

Governments in Asia tend to maintain power for long periods of time, and a substantial number of them have been non-democratic. China, North Korea, and Vietnam are communist, authoritarian, single-party states, while Taiwan and South Korea until the s and Singapore to the present have had authoritarian regimes of the right. Other nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia are more difficult to classify on a left-right continuum but must be considered undemocratic for most of their modern histories.

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Even Japan, with a fully functioning democratic system, has experienced more than fifty years of almost uninterrupted one-party rule—a hegemony that ended with the landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national election of August Regimes in power for long periods of time tend to retard the capacity for developing political liberties and establishing limits on state power — and this is especially the case for long-lasting authoritarian regimes.

But simply adding the populations of the countries listed in the previous paragraph produces a present total of more than two billion people living in one-party governments or in nations that only recently pushed toward plural democracy.


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The pace of economic change has been rapid in much of Asia, and shifts from agriculture to manufacturing and countryside to city have produced powerful demographic shifts as well. Where high rates of economic development have been sustained for decades, as in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and China, changes in levels of education, training, and social mobility are frequent too.

The contrast between fast moving economic and social shifts and slow moving governmental and political processes produces lags between socio-economic developments and legal and political accommodations. A persistent gap between economic change and political reform creates pressure for political change. If that pressure builds up and is not suppressed, long periods of economic development without significant political change will be followed by structural change in government.

Again, one consequence of the difference in pace between economic and political change is a time lag between economic and social changes and the political adjustments they promote. But even if causation is direct it may not be swift. Long delays between economic development and political liberalization are not decisive evidence against economic causation, but does economic development mean the inevitable end of authoritarian government?

The jury is still out on this question in East Asia — but not very far out. Authoritarian governments of the right have been reformed in Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and they have been significantly softened in Malaysia and between coups anyway Thailand.

On the continent, only Singapore, Myanmar, and Pakistan remain substantially intact as authoritarian, right-wing regimes. The prospects for right-wing governments to generate sustained economic growth and enhanced educational and social opportunity do not look promising.

Situating the Role of Public Opinion in China’s Death Penalty Reforms

Left-wing authoritarianism in Asia has had more staying power. China, Vietnam, and North Korea remain politically unreconstructed despite substantial economic development and the dismantling of some socialist institutions in the first two. This cluster of communist states — and their strong commitments to capital punishment — is the third major difference between Asia and other regions of the world. The implosion of the Soviet Union as a regime and superpower helped produce a striking contrast between Europe and Asia in the presence of hard-line communist governments.

Communism has almost disappeared in Europe and Central Asia, replaced by various gradations of democracy and by other types of authoritarian government. There were multiple routes to abolition in this region, with 11 cases of abolition through legislative action and 5 involving the prominent role of a constitutional court, but in many respects — especially the influence of the Council of Europe and Amnesty International — similarities prevailed.

There are few hard-line authoritarian communist states on the world map in , but almost all of them are in Asia. In contrast, three Asian nations fit the hard-line communist classification: China, Vietnam, and North Korea. While North Korea is dysfunctional in many ways and may be on the way to collapsing , the PRC and Vietnam are developing rapidly and show few signs of governmental weakness or instability.

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Hard-line communist states, like all authoritarian governments, are unfriendly to notions of limiting government power or extending personal liberty. This enthusiasm for state power is reflected in periods of high-rate state killing in both China and Vietnam. The affinity of communist governments for capital punishment is more a matter of practice than principle. Communist theory which hopes for the withering away of the state typically endorses the ultimate abolition of execution, and a rhetoric of eventual abolition is present in the PRC and Vietnam now as it was in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin.

In practice, however, hard-line communist governments tend to use capital punishment aggressively, in many instances more aggressively than other authoritarian systems. But while all types of hard-line government tend to endorse capital punishment and resist limits on its application, the prospects for deeper change in Asian death penalty policy are closely tied to the behavior of communists in power because hard-line regimes of the right were reformed or significantly softened in the late 20th century.

South Korea and Taiwan are the most notable examples, but significant steps toward democracy also have been taken in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. A similar softening of the communist regime in Laos may have occurred, but the more dramatic shifts in Cambodia since Khmer Rouge required external pressures to effect regime change. One critical question is what the impact will be of sustained economic growth for multiple decades in the pattern of Taiwan and South Korea on the authoritarian proclivities of a hard-line nation like China.

We are in the process of finding out. China and Vietnam are both experiencing rapid economic development, and both are still relatively early in the process, though they may cross important developmental boundaries soon. It is possible that the same kinds of economic and social forces that broke down regimes of the authoritarian right will have similar effects in China and Vietnam. In any event, executions in China have already declined markedly, from around 15, per year for the period to to or so in If communist regimes such as China and Vietnam are as prone to democratic change through the steady pressure of development as the autocracies of the right were, this lesson must be learned in the years to come.

Communist governments may compromise on capital punishment without more general democratization — and the PRC may already have initiated such a two-track approach — but such compromise seems likely to occur only if international concern about the death penalty in Asia intensifies, as it seemed to do in the period leading up to the Olympics in Beijing.

Unless the major communist nations of Asia implode in the Soviet pattern, the future will test how hard-line communist states respond to the same dynamics that have already reshaped many other authoritarian governments in the region. This is a topic of defining importance to the future of the death penalty in the region.

A comprehensive account of how the recent history of capital punishment in Asia compares to the records in other regions would require two kinds of data unavailable to us. The first is a more complete picture of Asia than we could assemble in the five years that we worked on this project. Indonesia also deserves the same kind of case study attention that the nations of East Asia have received.

We hope our efforts will provoke others to uncover more country-level detail about capital punishment in these and other neglected nations. We also hope that vital information now shrouded in government secrecy in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Singapore will be revealed in the near future. There is still much to be learned about the history and current practice of capital punishment in Asia that could enrich and modify the themes of this article. If some of our interpretations are proved wrong or nearsighted, we will still consider this project a success so long as it helps stimulate additional studies of the subject.

They are sorely needed. But Asia is hardly the only place where there are large gaps in our understanding of the death penalty over time. There are few studies of capital punishment in Western Europe that examine more than the most recent decades, and little is known about the politics and administration of capital punishment in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and Scandinavia. Studies are also scant about the history of capital punishment and its abolition in Latin America, a region where the death penalty disappeared before economic development and political democratization were very far along.

A richer understanding of the histories in a wider variety of nations could reveal a great deal about how closely abolition is tied to political change and economic growth. It is difficult to arrive at confident conclusions about the distinctiveness of Asia in part because of the ignorance about capital punishment in so many other places. The more we learn about other regions, the clearer our vision will be of the aspects that make Asia similar and distinctive.

But at this point in the comparative study of capital punishment, what sets Asia apart from Western Europe of the s is first and foremost the much greater variety of political and economic circumstances. That did not happen during the brief time that a non-LDP coalition governed in , but some analysts expect that this time will be different.

In the years to come, the great variety of Asian political circumstances and the presence of rapidly developing but still authoritarian governments will provide clearer clues about the circumstances in which development pushes toward plural democracy, human rights, limits on government, and abolition of capital punishment. To paraphrase a proverb, the citizens of Asia are living in interesting times. David T.


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  4. Johnson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii. His email is davidjoh hawaii. Franklin E. Zimring is the William G. His email is fzimring law. This article was written for Asia Pacific Journal and relies on materials from that book. Recommended citation: David T. Johnson and Franklin E. But Stalinist nightmares aside, persons are not selected randomly for execution, they are condemned and executed from a larger pool of potentially capital cases.

    In Japan and America, this pool consists entirely of homicide crimes. See David T. Its average annual execution rate per million population from to 0. But executions in Pakistan began increasing after that, going from 18 in to 21 in , 52 in , 83 in , and in , before falling to 36 in

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