Whitney Light

Why Most Chinese Still Support the Death Penalty

(via Bigstockphoto)

An audience of some 50,000 followers on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, has helped Zhang Jing, 37, to cope with a huge marital stress: for two years, her husband has sat on death row, having been convicted of murder despite acting in self-defense.

Zhang told Tea Leaf Nation that her sympathizers wrote to her: “Zhang Jing, you’re very strong. We’ll help you get the message out. We’ll stand with you. We’re the vulnerable groups. We cannot let this go down. That might happen to us next time.”

In 2009, Zhang’s husband, Xia Junfeng, was selling roast chicken and sausages in the northeastern city of Shenyang when local law enforcement agents, called chengguan, picked him up and later beat him in their office. At some point, Xia struck back with a pocket knife, killing two agents and wounding a third. Xia was convicted of intentional homicide. His case is now up for final review by the Supreme People’s Court.

Seemingly marked by official misconduct and class bias, Xia’s case has attracted the advocacy and legal work of Junfeng’s lawyer, a rights lawyer in Beijing named Teng Biao. In 2010, Teng founded China Against the Death Penalty, a group of 30 lawyers committed to rectifying the most egregious miscarriages of justice involving capital punishment. They would like to address more cases, but their resources thus far are meager.

“In China, the movement has only just started,” Teng told TLN. “Its voice is still very limited.” With a few volunteers, the organization publishes capital punishment reports online, tweets on its Weibo and Twitter feeds and tries to draw more lawyers to the cause. Its ultimate goal is to bring down the number of executions in China – a tall agenda.

The complex roots of support

Last month, in its 2012 international report on the death, Amnesty International once again inspired headlines with estimates that China far and away leads the world in executions, although official data is a state secret. Yet however high the actual number may be – the Dui Hua Foundation estimates 3,000 were performed last year – lawyers and legal scholars must contend with the fact that a majority of the Chinese population supports capital punishment. At least part of the abolitionists’ struggle involves shaping public opinion, and doing that requires unraveling the complex roots of death penalty support.

In 2011, for instance, a 21-year-old named Yao Jiaxin was executed for killing a young woman that he hit with his car. After knocking her off her bicycle, Yao had stabbed the woman to death, fearing that she would go after his wealth for hefty compensation. Yao soon turned himself in, but that wasn’t enough to placate an outraged public. The courts responded with a death sentence.

Xiao Xuehui, a professor of literature, wrote a blog post condemning Yao. “I don’t support the death penalty, but I oppose getting rid of it now,” she said. Xiao noted that China lacks a system for life imprisonment without parole, raising her anxiety that violent criminals stand to be out in a few years. Xiao added that because they could not be compensated monetarily, the victim’s family deserved to see retribution.

“If you take away the death penalty, it’s too unfair for them,” she said.

That point of view – an eye for an eye – is well established in Chinese culture, according to lawyers and advocates. The death penalty in China dates back to the first written legal code of the Shang dynasty (reigning from the 16th to the 11th century B.C.E.) and has been practiced continually since, then carried on by the Communist government.

“There’s a saying in Chinese, bu sha bu zu yi ping min fen: you can’t appease the people’s rage if you don’t kill [the criminals],” said Cheng Hai, a lawyer in Beijing. “Only after you’ve killed them can the public feel more at ease. This is a very disturbing mentality.”

Others warn, however, of taking the historical and cultural assumption too far.

If one assumes that Chinese support for the death penalty is unique, “that says that the culture is punitive and it’s embedded in culture and philosophical belief, and that’s not necessarily the case,” said Hong Lu, a criminologist at the University of Nevada.

Does the death penalty work in China?

Rather, Lu said, research shows that public support is high in China for the same reason it’s been high in other countries — people believe that deterrence and retribution work.

But it does not, argued Su Nan, Beijing representative of The Rights Practice, an internationally funded organization, who helps mentor and provide research to the China Against the Death Penalty. In fact, she said, over years of monitoring the issue, the organization has found that courts in China sentence the poor and undereducated much more often than the wealthy. If that info were widely distributed, “maybe people can reflect,” Su said.

So far, the abolition discussion has remained confined mostly to a small audience of lawyers and academics. Last year, the organization, with China Against the Death Penalty, held a conference of 40 criminal defense lawyers to discuss the issue. By the end, even those who came with reservations about abolition were convinced by the evidence on show that the death penalty fails, Su said.

A problem of class

The public may be harder to persuade. Advocates are working against a real public fear that without the death penalty, crime will run rampant.

“It’s the low-class citizens that want it because they see themselves on the receiving end of … violent crime, robbery, rape cases, abduction, forced prostitution cases, and especially corruption cases,” said Lu. Moreover, without access to government crime data, there’s no way to detail patterns and levels of crime and punishment. Instead, emotion-based desires to curb criminality are left to percolate.

Vengeful emotions run high particularly in cases that show class divide. “The greater the gap between the bottom classes and the elites, the deeper the resentment and hatred,” Cheng said. He added that greater societal equality and transparency would lead people to be more tolerant of others’ mistakes.

Yao Jiaxin’s case exemplifies how sensitivities over wealth inequality can shape criminal law. In a society witnessing a widening gulf between the wealthy and the very poor, the public saw a rich young man killing a poor woman with impunity. It’s also likely why the list of 55 capital offenses includes white collar crimes such as fraud and corruption.

Wealth inequality is the front on which abolitionists believe they will wage their hardest fight for public opinion, and yet perhaps also the next step in legal reform towards reduction.

“That is the next big battle,” said John Kamm, a prominent Chinese human rights advocate and executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation. “The public is very angry.  If some assistant minister of railroads pockets 100 million renminbi, they want his head. No question.”

In practice, however, the death sentence is rarely handed down to corrupt officials. Instead, the face of white collar executions in recent years has been people such as Wu Ying, a self-made tycoon who in 2009 was accused of cheating investors, but whose supporters felt she had only been trying to raise funds inside a banking system that tends to disadvantage loans sought by private entrepreneurs.

In that case, the public made an outpouring of support for Wu through social media, increasingly a factor in an emerging mass abolitionist movement. Kamm argued that the Chinese public is not asking for the death penalty for non-violent criminals such as Wu Ying. But getting the public to parse the difference will likely prove a challenge.

“A lot of those who are campaigning for the death penalty to be abolished, I think it’s more of trying to do what’s ‘fashionable’ at the moment,” said Yuan Yulai, a lawyer and deputy director of the Administrative Law Committee for China’s National Bar Association. Abolition is a low priority for citizens in comparison with questions, for example, of property rights, he said. “You know, the problems that trouble more people [are] personal freedom, property rights.”

A final defense

But some abolitionists would argue that the death penalty ought to be a priority because of what it says about China’s justice system writ large. In his final defense of Xia Junfeng, published online in Chinese and English, Teng Biao argued, “If such an act is condemned with a sentence of death, then today’s verdict will hurt not only Xia Junfeng’s legal rights, but also the dignity of the law itself, social ethics, and the citizens’ sense of right and wrong.”

Xia’s wife, meanwhile, has embraced forgiveness.

“I used to think, why blame the system? It’s those two chengguans who beat up my husband,” Zhang Jing said recently. Her experience, however, has shown her that it’s the system that needs reform. “You need people around you to help you see things you couldn’t.”

Zi Heng Lim contributed reporting.

Jump To Comments

Whitney Light

Whitney Light is a writer and photographer in New York. She loves history, travel memoirs, documentary films and swimming pools. Currently, she is studying for an M.S. at Columbia Journalism School.
  • highplanedrifter

    I generally oppose the death penalty. Having to ponder for the rest of your life, in a small cell, the damage you’ve done may be the harsher punishment. Yao Jiaxin however doesn’t make a good poster boy for anti-death penalty movement.

    • Yi Zhong

      The problem in China is that life imprisonment is never carried out in full. Criminals are released after 20 years in jail, max. If you happen to be the son of some powerful figures, that number goes down even further. Only death penalty is carried out “properly.”