Why China Executes So Many People

Besides these legal questions, death penalty opponents contend that the government's propaganda seeks to convince people that killing is appropriate in certain circumstances. 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.

There's also a sense, reinforced through propaganda, that killing "bad people" is inherently just. In March, national television ran live footage of the run-up to the execution of four foreign nationals convicted of murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, an event that received international media attention. Shortly after the execution, Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalistic state-run newspaper Global Times, declared to his 3.6 million followers on Weibo that "it is necessary to resolutely pursue revenge and send a stern warning to those who kill Chinese people."

These efforts appear to be working. A survey of respondents in Beijing, Hubei and Guangdong conducted in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute revealed that almost 60 percent supported the death penalty. Unsurprisingly, capital punishment provides great legitimacy to the Communist Party, which claims to be satisfying popular sentiment and public indignation when it executes corrupt officials. China is one of the very few countries that has the death penalty for economic crime and has shown little mercy with disgraced government officials. And, in a country in which free speech isn't guaranteed, the public hears few arguments against the death penalty in the national media.

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Chinese opponents of the death penalty know they face a daunting environment.

"Very few people are aware of the concept of abolishing the death penalty, let alone the consideration of societal improvement and benefits that comes with getting rid of the sentence. Only an extremely small minority knows about it," said Beijing-based human rights lawyer Li Heping. "An overwhelming majority, including some members of the legal profession, think that the death penalty is a right and proper punishment. They have not thought about this issue in depth."

Liang Xiaojun, who works with Teng Biao, pointed out that China Against Death Penalty is China's only grassroots organization that pays close attention to the death penalty issue. "The movement is not on track yet. We were only recently set up, so our influence is still quite limited," he said.

For now, death penalty opponents are aiming to limit its use by first abolishing the sentence against non-violent crimes. China currently has 55 offenses that are punishable by death -- the most in the world. Of these, 31 are non-violent offenses. But in the long term, death penalty opponents have a much higher aim: to completely overhaul the way the practice is judged in Chinese society.

Will this happen? Ultimately, most activists believe change requires leadership from the top. Many countries that abolished the death penalty did so before public opinion had swung in favor of ending it. The Communist Party, with its lack of political opposition, would face few hurdles should it choose to change this policy. Nevertheless, few Chinese are optimistic.

Back in Shenyang, Zhang Jing said she's mentally prepared for the ruling, which could come any day.

"I don't dare give myself even a little hope. I'm afraid I won't be able to take it," said Zhang. "If the sentence is upheld, that means justice no longer applies. What can you do?" Her voice trailed off.

"I hope the death penalty can be abolished, not because of my husband's case, but because I know that there're many wrongful convictions," she said. "But it's a long, long road ahead. I don't know when it'll happen, I don't know how many lifetimes later, but definitely not within my lifetime."

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

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