Death In China

By Matthew Cameron

China is well known for being the death penalty capital of the world and a recent column by Teng Biao shows that Chinese public opinion is strongly in favor of capital punishment, even for nonviolent crimes such as corruption. I suspect, however, that this isn’t because Chinese people are inherently “bloodthirsty,” as Biao puts it toward the end of his column. Instead, it might be a product of the general ineffectiveness of the Chinese criminal justice system:

Strictly speaking, China has no “justice,” relying only on “political law” when it comes down to dealing with corrupt officials. The so-called “double regulation” (the Communist Party’s special investigative procedure in which officials are asked to respond to allegations of corruption or other violations) means that sentences are delivered under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party’s discipline inspection departments, and that the code of criminal procedure is only a reference, just as the prosecution and the trial are just a semblance of justice.

It is almost unheard of for Chinese judges dealing with corruption cases to make independent judgments by relying solely on the judicial procedure, evidence submitted, and the law. Deciding whether to indict a corrupt official, and how to deal with him, is to a great extent not the result of an enactment of the law, but rather the outcome of a political power struggle.

Later in the piece, Chinese professor Hu Xing Do estimates that 99 percent of corrupt officials in China are not caught. Thinking about these circumstances for a minute, it makes perfect sense that Chinese people appreciate the death penalty: It is pretty much the only way they see criminals being punished. Moreover, Chinese authorities are happy to oblige because executions placate a populace that might otherwise challenge legal and political systems that enable insiders to become astonishingly wealthy through shady dealings.

Attempts at abolishing the death penalty – both in the United States and abroad – often focus on promoting liberal ideals and support for human rights. But activists might want to consider folding the anti-death penalty movement into a broader push at reforming criminal justice systems so that citizens actually believe in the law’s efficacy without needing to be sated by state-sanctioned executions.