Why China Executes So Many People

Despite growing opposition, capital punishment remains entrenched in the country's justice system.
condemned.jpgSuspects listen to their verdicts at a court in Kunming, Yunnan province, November 6, 2012. (Reuters)

Zhang Jing has only seen her husband four times in the past four years. This Thursday, it will have been be exactly two years since they last met.

And she may never see him again.

That's because Zhang's husband, Xia Junfeng, a former street vendor in the northeastern city of Shenyang, was sentenced to death in 2011 for stabbing to death two chengguan, who are much-maligned city management inspectors responsible for enforcing law and order.

The sentence is now under final review by the Supreme People's Court in Beijing. If approved, Xia will not be able to appeal and will be executed.

Zhang, 37, still adamantly believes that her husband is innocent.

"They charged him with intentional homicide. But how could my husband have 'intentionally' killed someone if they first beat him up?" Zhang questioned. "He was only defending himself. If he'd known what would happen, would he still have done it? Of course he wouldn't have. Even if he escaped the death penalty, he'd lose freedom for the rest of his life behind bars. Isn't that a very painful thing?"

"Also, why didn't they call defense witnesses to testify in court? Why only call upon the chengguans' witnesses? I feel it was very unfair," she said.

Cases like Xia's, where there's a chance that the accused could be innocent, are the focus of the anti-death penalty efforts in China. "Even those who strongly support the death penalty don't support condemning an innocent person to death," said Teng Biao, a human rights activist and founder of the non-profit Beijing-based China Against Death Penalty. Teng also served as the defense lawyer for Xia in his appeal.

A report released last month by the human rights group Amnesty International said that, as in previous years, China executed more people last year than the rest of the world combined. While the official number is unknown -- executions are considered state secrets in China -- most estimates place the number at around 3,000. By contrast, 42 people were executed in the United States last year.

Opposition to the death penalty exists in China but faces many obstacles, including pro-execution government propaganda, class and income inequalities, and the lack of an independent judiciary. Another issue, alas, is popular indifference. But while anti-death penalty activists say public education is needed to get the message out, they believe change ultimately needs to come from the top -- something that they're not optimistic about at all.

***

The death penalty has deeply-entrenched roots in China, and the notion of sha ren chang ming, the Mandarin equivalent to "an eye for an eye", is rife in Chinese literature and tradition. But a judiciary beholden to the interests of the Communist Party arguably has a bigger impact.

"If the case is deemed to be detrimental to social stability, the government might order the courts to issue the death penalty," said Liu Weiguo, a Shandong-based rights lawyer. Even some supporters of the death penalty, like Guangzhou lawyer Cheng Zhunqiang, say that its legitimacy depends on the existence of an "extremely fair and just" judiciary, which China lacks. The current judicial system is unfairly skewed against the disenfranchised, and the application of the law is utterly arbitrary.

Prominent human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan recalled a typical example: Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai and convicted murderer, was given a suspended death sentence due to mental illness. Meanwhile, a villager from the impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou that Liu represented was refused a psychiatric assessment by the judges who eventually sentenced him to death.

Six decades of Communist rule have inculcated the idea that an individual life can be sacrificed for the greater good, a belief exemplified by the one-child policy.

The poor are further disadvantaged because they cannot afford to "buy back" their lives by offering financial compensation to the victim's family in return for them not pressing charges. This issue loomed large in the case of Zhang Jing. "We're just hawkers. We don't have money. We can't afford to compensate. It's impossible," she said.

Zi Heng Lim is a journalist based in New York City.

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