Is China slowly killing off the death penalty?

Amnesty UK's Clare Bracey reports on the Chinese government's tentative steps towards removing the death penalty.


Clare Bracey, Amnesty International UK Death Penalty Campaign Manager. If you would like to support Amnesty’s fight against the death penalty you can find out more about their work on the website here.

There is “no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England”, said the great legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly in 1810.

Two centuries later replace “England” with “China”.

There are at least 55 offences in the People’s Republic of China (RPC) which can lead to the imposition of a death sentence, including drug smuggling and other non-lethal crimes. For example, in December 2009 China executed the British citizen Akmal Shaikh for allegedly importing heroin, despite fears that Shaikh suffered from mental illness and had been duped by a criminal gang into carrying the drugs.

The previous year a Chinese businessman was executed for fraud in relation to a bogus ant-breeding scheme.

China’s hardline pro-death penalty stance has been a huge concern to abolition organisations for decades. With death penalty numbers contracting globally (down to a tentative figure of 527 for the rest of the world combined), the PRC is thought to be dispatching thousands ever year. It not only executes more than the rest of the world combined, it does so several times over.

Things may be changing though. Last month the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress agreed to reduce the number of the country’s capital crimes from 68 to its present 55, the first such change for decades. Interestingly, the debates received a significant amount of media coverage in China.

To be sure, the 13 were rarely- or never-used offence categories (mostly economic crimes). And true, another capital offence (relating to organ harvesting) seems to have been smuggled in (making the number 56, not 55). But a spokesman for the NPC committee acknowledged that reducing the number of crimes punishable by death is in line with international practice.

This latter point is true. The United Nations’ most recent resolution on the death penalty in November called upon countries to establish a moratorium on executions while, as an interim measure, urging states to restrict the use of the death penalty and to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed.

China is not noted for its concern with international human rights norms but neither is it totally resistant to them either. As the furious reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the prisoner of conscience Lui Xiaobo showed, the Chinese government greatly dislikes international criticism.

For decades China’s secretive, wholesale use of capital punishment has attracted serious and sustained criticism. It has been out of step with the international trend toward abolition and it now seems to be trying to do something about it.

Last November officials from the Supreme People’s Court claimed that new oversight powers had meant that more death sentences were being overturned – implying that there’s has been a decrease in the number of executions. Yet, these claims are impossible to verify because data on capital punishment is still a state secret in China.

China is unlikely to have found its own Samuel Romilly just yet and Amnesty is pressing the Chinese authorities to publish their data on the death penalty and to prove their claim that they are at least starting along the road to abolition.

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