Chinese Scholars and Officials Debate Abolition of the Death Penalty

February 16, 2005

In an article published in English on January 27, Xinhua reviewed debate over abolition of the death penalty that took place at a recent symposium involving young Chinese criminal law scholars. According to the report, some scholars called for the abolition of the death penalty, arguing that the state has no right to deprive citizens of their right to life. In response, Vice-Minister of Justice Zhang Jun suggested that the government’s immediate goal is to limitthe application of the death penalty, but not abolish it. This will be accomplished by handing down more long-term prison sentences of 20 to 30 years. Zhang noted a recent MOJ survey indicating that criminals sentenced to life in prison are often released in 15 to 16 years. To address concerns about this trend, he recommended that criminals sentenced to life serve a minimum of 25 years of their terms. An English-language summary of some of these arguments was published in the Beijing Review on February 16.

Chinese-language articles on the death penalty discussions appeared on the Xinhua Web site (1/17), in the People’s Daily (1/20), and in the China Youth Daily (1/25). Commentary in some of these sources suggests there is little chance that the death penalty will be abolished in the near-term. In apparent response to various scholarly proposals on abolition, the China Youth Daily commentary argues that public opinion (in addition to the views of scholars and experts) must be respected when considering that the abolition of the death penalty. The basic conclusion of the piece is that the death penalty is popular, and abolition without public support will undermine the legitimacy of the law. It is unclear whether the argument is an excuse to hold on to what is viewed as a necessary deterrent or reflects fear of a backlash if the death penalty is abolished and the public views the government as soft on crime and corruption. In a People's Daily collection of "netizen" comments, a scholar argues that based on the Party's phased development targets for the 21st Century, the death penalty can be abolished in three stages (1) up to 2020, China can progressively eliminate the death penalty for non-economic crimes; (2) in another 10 to 20 years, when conditions are "ripe," the death penalty can be eliminated for violent crimes that do not involve a loss of life; and (3) when rule of law has developed, at the latest by 2050, the death penalty can be abolished completely.

According to a report published last year, Luo Gan, head of the national Party Political-Legal Committee, "quietly" ordered Chinese judicial authorities to reduce the number of executions. Public discussion on the death penalty and what appears to be rhetorical support by the government for a reduction in executions may be related to China’s effort to convince the European Union to lift its arms embargo. In a communiqué issued in early December, the EU declined to lift the arms embargo soon but expressed its political will to continue to work toward that goal.