Capital Punishment in China

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The world's leading executioner is estimated to kill about as many prisoners in three days as does the U.S., the world's fifth-ranked, in a year

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A woman from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou shouts before being taken to be executed / Reuters

Wednesday night's controversial execution in Georgia of Troy Davis has inspired much deliberation and soul-searching on the U.S. retention of the death penalty, which has been abandoned by the majority of the world's nations. One particularly revealing, and often-cited, fact is that the U.S. ranks fifth in the world by number of prisoners executed annually. Fellow top-ten nations include Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and North Korea. But what about the world's most frequent executioner, the country that in 2010 put more prisoners to death than the rest of the world combined? What is the state of the death penalty in China?

Research by Amnesty International found that 23 countries used the death penalty in 2010. The U.S., ranked fifth, executed 46 prisoners. Iran, ranked second, executed at least 252. China, according to Amnesty International, executed "thousands." The exact number is a state secret. The Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights non-profit that focuses on China, estimates China kills about 5,000 prisoners annually. In absolute terms, that would be about 14 executions daily, or in three days what the U.S. performs in an entire year. Most executions in China are reportedly carried out by lethal injection or a single gunshot to the head, although, as in the U.S., there does not appear to be a uniform national policy.

The statistics are less unflattering for China when view per capita. China has the largest population on Earth with 1.3 billion people; 5,000 executions would mean one in every 260,000 residents. In the U.S., the rate in 2010 was one in every 6.7 million. Iran and North Korea executed about one in every 300,000 and 460,000, respectively.

Two of the factors apparently contributing to China's frequent use of the death penalty are the troubled court system and a national policy that permits capital punishment for crimes that are not considered capital in most other countries. Corruption, embezzling, drug-related crimes, and even theft on a large enough scale can all get you killed in China. Last month, a Chinese telecommunications executive was sentenced to death for accepting bribes. In March, China sparked a diplomatic incident by executing three Filipino citizens on drug trafficking charges. Other non-violent crimes punished by death have included, for example, 43-year-old Du Yimin, killed in March 2008 after he borrowed $100 million for investment schemes that never panned out.

As for the courts that hand out the sentences, a 2008 Washington Post investigation found "a largely closed legal system directed by party committees" and marked by "secrecy, lack of due process, and uneven application of the law." Policy change can sometimes come slowly in China, where the size and density of the less-than-transparent political system can make it difficult for leaders to push through reforms, especially when it comes to reforms that carry little public popularity or promise of personal advancement. China's policymakers may also be operating under a belief that the death penalty deters future criminals. The deterrence effect of capital punishment has been the subject of substantial political debate in the U.S., although a significant body of academic research has found that no such deterrence effect exists.

But China's approach to capital punishment does appear to be changing. In 2007, the Chinese Supreme People's Court was granted the power to review death penalty cases. The court says it has overturned about 15 percent of cases, although there's no way to verify this. Earlier this year, China announced that it was cutting back on the list of crimes that could receive the death penalty, the first time it has done so since 1979. However, according to the Associated Press, "In the past, people convicted of these crimes -- which include forging invoices to avoid taxes and smuggling cultural relics out of the country -- rarely received the death penalty." The announced changes also banned the death penalty for anyone over the age of 75.

While public dissent can be at times limited in China, the Washington Post story reported that "prominent Chinese academics" have been calling for the country to reduce or end its use of the death penalty for capital punishment. The United Nations has passed two separate resolutions calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, although this does not appear to have altered policy in China any more than it has in the U.S. Neighboring Taiwan, however, has been embroiled in public debate over its own use of the death penalty. Some analysts say that Taiwan's anti-death-penalty arguments and ideas could find some exposure in nearby China, potentially increasing concern there over the use of capital punishment.

None of this dulls any of the cases against the U.S. death penalty, of course, nor does it cast it any more favorable of an international-comparison light; the U.S. still executed more prisoners last year than Libya, Syria, and Sudan combined. But it underscores the extent to which China's capital punishment practices stand out.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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