Chinese Government Considers Reducing Number of Crimes Punishable by Death

February 23, 2011

In late December 2010, Chinese state-run media outlets reported that the National People's Congress Standing Committee began its second reading of a draft amendment to the Criminal Law. The proposed amendment, if passed, would be the first time that China reduced the number of crimes that qualify for capital punishment since the People's Republic of China enacted its Criminal Law in 1979. In addition, the draft amendment could introduce new sentences for crimes involving driving under the influence and human organ trafficking. The proposal has drawn both criticism and praise from Internet users, political elites, and legal experts.

Criminal Law Draft Amendment Under Review

On August 23, 2010, Xinhua, China's central news agency, reported that the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) began to deliberate a draft amendment to China's Criminal Law (available here in Chinese). According to an August 24, 2010, Xinhua report, the draft amendment to the Criminal Law includes revisions that would reduce the number of crimes that qualify for the death penalty, outlaw human organ trafficking, and create tougher punishments for those involved in organized crime. In addition, the draft amendment proposes eliminating the death penalty for people over the age of 75 at the time the crime is committed (People's Court Daily, 6 September 10). The draft amendment, the eighth since the Criminal Law was revised in 1996, is meant to further implement the official criminal justice policy of "tempering justice with mercy," according to the official August 28, 2010, explanation released on the NPC Web site. On December 20, 2010, the draft amendment was submitted for its second reading to the NPCSC (Xinhua, 20 December 10). According to Article 27 of the Legislation Law, the Standing Committee, in general, will review laws three times prior to voting on adoption.

Proposed Revisions To Limit Use of Capital Punishments

Under the PRC Criminal Law, China currently stipulates that 68 crimes are punishable by the death penalty. However, the eighth amendment would eliminate the death penalty for 13 economic-related, non-violent offenses, reducing the total number of crimes eligible for the death penalty to 55 (China Daily, 28 August 10; China Daily, 24 August 10). The proposed eighth amendment, if enacted, would be the first time the Chinese legislature reduced the number of crimes subject to capital punishment since the People's Republic of China enacted its Criminal Law in 1979 (Xinhua, August 23, 2010). The following table provides the list of offenses and corresponding Criminal Law article numbers for crimes that would no longer be subject to the death penalty.

Crimes Currently Punishable by Death That May Be Reclassified as Non-Capital Offenses

CL Articles (1997)

Description of Crime

Chinese Romanization (Hanyu Pinyin)

Article 151 (2)

Crime of Smuggling Cultural Relics

Zousi wenwu zui

Article 151 (2)

Crime of Smuggling Gold, Silver, or Other Precious Metals

Zousi guizhong jinshu zui

Article 151 (2)

Crime of Smuggling Precious and Rare Species of Wildlife and Wildlife Products

Zousi zhengui dongwu, zhengui dongwu zhipin zui

Article 153

Crime of Smuggling General Goods or Articles

Zousi putong huowu, wupin zui

Articles 194, 199*

Crime of Bill Fraud

Piaoju zhapian zui

Articles 194, 199*

Crime of Financial Voucher Fraud

Jinrong pingzheng zhapian zui

Articles 195, 199*

Crime of Letter of Credit Fraud

Xinyong zheng zhapian zui

Article 205 (2)

Crime of Issuing False Exclusive Value-Added Tax Invoices,
Export Tax Rebate Invoices, or Tax Deduction Invoices

Xu kai zhengzhi sui zhuanyong fapiao,
yong yu pianqu chukou tuishui, di kou shui kuan fapiao zui

Article 206 (2)

Crime of Counterfeiting or Selling Counterfeit Exclusive Value-Added Tax Invoices

Weizao, chushou weizai de zengzhi shui zhuanyong fapiao zui

Article 264 (1)

Crime of Theft

Daoqie zui

Article 295

Crime of Teaching Crime-Committing Methods

Chuanshou fanzui fangfa zui

Article 328

Crime of Excavating and Stealing Ancient Cultural Relics or Robbing Tombs

Daoqie gu wenhua yizhi, gu muzang zui

Article 328

Crime of Excavating and Stealing Prehistoric Human or Other Fossils

Daojue gu renlei huashi, gu jizhui dongwu huashi zui

Source: Criminal Law Amendment (Draft) Provisions and Explanation, National People's Congress (Online), August, 28, 2010

* Article 199: Whoever commits the crime mentioned in Article 192, 194 or 195 of this Section shall, if the amount involved is especially huge, and especially heavy losses are caused to the interests of the State and the people, be sentenced to life imprisonment or death and also to confiscation of property.

Controversy Over the Eighth Amendment Proposals

The proposals to curb capital punishment provisions have sparked broad public debate over the pace of criminal justice reforms and the role of the death penalty (Dui Hua Foundation, 9 November 10). According to an August 23, 2010, Xinhua article, Li Shishi, chair of the NPCSC's Legislative Affairs Committee, stated, "considering China's current economic and social development reality, appropriately removing the death penalty from some economy-related non-violent offences, [sic] will not negatively affect social stability nor public security." With growing popular concern over economic crimes, however, the Chinese news media have also addressed opposition to the legislation, most notably the public's fear that abolishing the death penalty for non-violent, economic crimes would allow corrupt officials to escape capital punishment. In an August 28, 2010, China Daily article, NPCSC member Cong Bin offered a counter perspective in opposing the measure: "Economic crimes are on the rise in China at the moment. So it might not be a good time to abolish capital punishment for such crimes, especially those that have a negative social effect." In a September 28, 2010, Xinhua report (in Chinese), and a September 28, 2010, Xinhua report (in English), NPCSC member Chen Sixi defended the draft eighth amendment against Chinese Internet users' concerns that the revisions would abolish the death penalty for corruption and bribery crimes. Chen stated that the scope of the eighth amendment revisions had never addressed eliminating these crimes.

While state-controlled media organizations have heralded the amendment as advancing human rights, others―including public officials―have pointed out that the proposals to abolish the death penalty for 13 economic crimes are a conservative step. In an August 26, 2010, Southern Weekend article (translated into English by the Dui Hua Foundation, translation here), Zhou Guangquan, a member of the NPC's Legal Committee, pointed out that authorities rarely, if ever, apply the death penalty for the 13 crimes under consideration: "The 13 crimes for which we’re eliminating the death penalty are mainly ones that, when looking at the 1997 Criminal Law, [the death penalty] had never been used or has been used only rarely." Zhou, however, noted that the reduction "has very positive significance for future development of criminal legislation in China and clarifies the fundamental value orientation of China’s Criminal Law." According to the August 23 Xinhua report, the death penalty in China is primarily applied for a limited number of crimes, such as murder, rape, and robbery.

Death Penalty Reform in China

In recent years, the Chinese government has publicly emphasized policies aimed at limiting the death penalty. In its 2009-2010 National Human Rights Action Plan, released in April 2009, the Chinese Government stated that the death penalty "shall be strictly controlled and prudently applied." In 2007, the Supreme People's Court reclaimed the power to review and approve all death penalty decisions after media organizations exposed abuses. In spite of policy announcements and reforms, it remains unclear whether the actions have impacted China's death penalty system. The Chinese government does not release statistics on death sentences or executions―and the government continues to classify this information as a state secret. Human rights and media organizations estimate that China executes more people than all other countries combined (The Telegraph, 23 August 10). The Dui Hua Foundation, for instance, estimates that China executed as many as 5000 people in 2009, according to its Fall 2010 report.

For more information on criminal law reforms and the death penalty in China, see Section II―Criminal Justice in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.