Why China should abolish the Death Penalty


John Sexton outlines on China.org.cn (so presumably it’s passed the censors) why China should abolish the Death Penalty. Here’s the low down.

The Death Penalty doesn’t deter crime – “In China, as in the rest of the world, most murders are domestic affairs, and courts have recently been directed to avoid the death penalty in such cases. Another common type is the spree killer who kills at random or out of revenge and often commits suicide on the scene. It is hard to see how capital punishment could deter such crimes.”

In China, the Death Penalty has most certainly been over-applied – “Until the 1980s, capital punishment was effectively restricted to murder and treason. In a major study, law professor Zhao Bingzhi of Renmin University has shown how during the following two decades it was gradually extended to lesser crimes. It is now available to judges for 68 separate offences, including theft, forgery, smuggling antiques, and even VAT fraud.”

The Death Penalty does little to prevent crime, but tarnishes China’s image – “Capital punishment not only does not prevent crime but also degrades those who carry it out and tarnishes states that practice it.”

As author John Sexton notes – “Abolition would allow China to occupy the moral high ground over retentionist countries, such as the United States, and would pull the rug from under critics of its human rights record. It would be a move without risks and with many benefits. It just needs leaders with the vision to steer it through.”

Full Article Below :

The outcry over the execution of Akmal Shaikh predictably rallied Chinese people around the government and reinforced support for the death penalty. But it was a very different story last year when Yang Jia, a young Shanghai drifter was executed for murdering six police officers.

Yang attacked a police station, stabbed six officers to death and wounded three others and a security guard. Months earlier, he had been roughly interrogated after being stopped while riding an unlicensed bicycle. He had unsuccessfully sued the police before deciding on bloody revenge.

When Yang came to trial, far from provoking outrage, he became something of a national hero. Bloggers compared him to ancient martial arts daredevils. Supporters demonstrated outside the court wearing T-shirts bearing his image.

Although irreconcilably opposed to capital punishment, I was at a loss as to why there was such an outcry over this case. There was no doubt of Yang’s guilt, or the savagery of the crime. The murdered officers had families and probably had nothing to do with Yang’s original grievance.

It seems to have been the personal qualities of the murderer – a, violent, cruel yet courageous young man on a quest to right an apparent wrong – that inspired public sympathy, especially among young people.

Yang’s case called to mind that of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Ellis was executed in 1955 for murdering her lover, David Blakely. Her youth, blonde good looks, and her earlier mistreatment at Blakely’s hands weighed more heavily in the public mind than the fact that she had coldly gunned him down. Her execution caused outrage, public protests and demonstrations. Although it took a further 10 years for the law to be changed, it was the beginning of the end of capital punishment in Britain.

When hanging was abolished in the UK, despite the dire predictions of conservatives, the sky did not fall, murder rates did not soar, and civilization did not collapse. Now, no country in the European Union uses the death penalty. The murder rate in the U.S., which has the death penalty, is three times that of the UK.

Common sense says that capital punishment deters, but social science tells us it makes no difference. In China, as in the rest of the world, most murders are domestic affairs, and courts have recently been directed to avoid the death penalty in such cases. Another common type is the spree killer who kills at random or out of revenge and often commits suicide on the scene. It is hard to see how capital punishment could deter such crimes.

In China, it is not only murder that attracts the death penalty. The execution of corrupt officials is popular with the public, but the prospect of draconian punishment seems to be no deterrent to the scores who appear before the courts every year.

There is a widespread misconception that the death penalty in China is a legacy of revolution. In fact, until the 1980s, capital punishment was effectively restricted to murder and treason. In a major study, law professor Zhao Bingzhi of Renmin University has shown how during the following two decades it was gradually extended to lesser crimes. It is now available to judges for 68 separate offences, including theft, forgery, smuggling antiques, and even VAT fraud. Not so long ago, a swindler was sentenced to death for selling overpriced ants.

In any case, when the French finally realized that the legacy of 1789 was more than Madame La Guillotine she was quietly retired in 1981. It is time for China to follow their example.

Capital punishment not only does not prevent crime but also degrades those who carry it out and tarnishes states that practice it. China should be aware that its use of the death penalty is one of the most potent factors in sullying the country’s image overseas, especially among young people.

There are those who say that the death penalty is too popular to be abolished. It is undoubtedly approved by majorities in many countries, even in some that no longer practice it. But, as the Chinese leadership knows better than most, it is necessary for reforming governments to take a lead.

Two years ago the Chinese government took a major step when it restored the right of appeal in capital cases to the Supreme People’s Court. That has already brought a welcome reduction in the number of executions. Let us hope that as Zhao Bingzhi and others advocate, China continues along the road to the abolition of the death penalty.

Abolition would allow China to occupy the moral high ground over retentionist countries, such as the United States, and would pull the rug from under critics of its human rights record.

It would be a move without risks and with many benefits. It just needs leaders with the vision to steer it through.

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7 comments

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  4. Of course the death penalty deters.

    All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a truism. The death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the least likely of all criminal sanctions to violate that truism.

    25 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,
    http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm

    “Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/02/deterrence-and-the-death-penalty-a-reply-to-radelet-and-lacock.aspx

    “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/03/death-penalty-deterrence-murder-rates.html

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/05/the-death-penalty-more-protection-for-innocents.aspx

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