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
"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.
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.
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.