China’s Death Penalty – Towards Abolition?

5 Mar

Human rights advocates have highlighted the death penalty as a breach to human rights in our current modern climate, therefore putting pressure on specific nations with the aim of worldwide abolition. Capital punishment regimes in China are a main focus for many domestic and global organisations, aiming to lower the number of executions and standardise death penalty procedures (Liang et al. 2006, p.119). Although China does not publish specific statistical data on the numbers executed by the state, in 2012 it was estimated to be around 3,000, roughly four times that of the rest of the world (The Economist). However, it also must be noted that this is a trend that has been falling over the last decade with a suggestion by Trevaskes (2012, p.1) that since 2007 the rate of capital punishment within China has decreased substantially. Changing trends in the rate of capital punishment within China display the ways in which the judicial and social systems are adapting to current social reforms and changes within the state (Trevaskes 2012, p.7), therefore making them important topics of discussion. Main debates around capital punishment focus on the governmental secrecy around execution numbers, the suggested injustices of the judicial system, and the reform changes that may suggest a movement towards abolition of the Chinese death penalty.


Highlighting the recent reforms in the Chinese judicial system, in particular the changes to sentencing and death penalty procedures, provides and insight into the changing social and political structure of China as a whole. Capital punishment can be seen as a historical form of Chinese sentencing dating back to at least the Shang Dynasty of the 16th century, evolving and adapting through periods of peace and revolution (Liang et al 2006, p.119). Trevaskes (2012, p.2) displays a transition from high numbers of executions in the 1980’s to a reduction following changes to the criminal justice system in the mid-2000’s. The ‘strike hard’ or ‘yanda’ policy of the 1980s encouraged ‘ex-military’ judges to punish with severity leading to a huge increase in rates of execution (Trevaskes 2012, p.3). The subjective system allowed judges to sentence with the death penalty on a number of unspecified ‘serious crimes’ with an aim to use the threat as a deterrent that would maintain social order (Trevaskes 2012, p.3). However changes led by reformists Xiao Yang and Liu Jiachen with aims to rationalise the judicial system creating objective and standardised sentencing policies (The Economist). Changes to the criminal justice agencies such as the Supreme People’s court reviewing and approving death sentences, policies highlighting crimes subject to capital punishment and ‘Sihuan’, a suspended death sentence are displayed as reasons for the rapid fall in executions over this period. China have also recently made changes to acknowledge human rights issues within their capital punishment procedures, 2010 led policies that ensured a fair trial and protection of defending parties (Trevaskes 2012, p.9). With 2011 leading the removal of 13 crimes from the capital offence list and a change in execution procedures from firing squad to the lethal injection (The Economist 2013). Modifications such as this led to speculation and theories of China considering the abolition of capital punishment.


Another factor that can be seen to display Chinese attitudes towards the abolition of the death penalty is through the opinions of individuals in society. Liang et al. (2006, p.119) demonstrates the lack of public opinion surveys within China leave us unaware of overall opinions towards capital punishment. However cultural sayings such as ‘the killer should be killed’ and ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ are suggested to be in support for the retributive and deterrent effects of death sentencing (Chen 1997, cited in Liang et al. 2006, p.123). Liang et al. (2006, p.126) also provides evidence to support this, displaying backing of the death penalty by Chinese students both within China and those studying in the USA. It is suggested through this research that since the economic reforms of 1978 and the increase in crime following this, support for the death penalty has increased with ideas that it will maintain social order (Liang et al. 2006, p.123). However Liang et al (2006, p.123) does display feelings that the capital punishment procedures should become more standardised with students suggesting that death sentences should only be imposed for the most serious crimes, such as murder. This therefore supports the recent reformations of the judicial system made by the Chinese government but supresses’ theories that China would currently consider the abolition of the death penalty.


Recent activities by the Chinese authority further support the suggestions of maintaining the death penalty within China, with governmental agencies increasing their willingness to publically discuss the topic (Hood 2009, p.16). At a UN conference supporting the worldwide abolition of capital punishment Chinese ambassadors defended its practices suggesting that judicial punishments should be a national choice (Hood 2009, p.17). It is now proposed that government secrecy on the execution rates leave the Chinese public unable to form rational support or oppositions to this debate, therefore leading to a disinterest in the death penalty by the general public (EU-China Project, cited in Hood 2009, p.18). Hood (2009, p.20) displays that an improvement of the sentencing and punishment procedures is now the main issue surrounding capital punishment for the Chinese public, therefore dispelling any theories of the Chinese abolition of capital punishment.


The large numbers of death sentences given by the Chinese justice system can be seen as an issue for many national and local organisations, however this must be considered with reference to the large Chinese population. Nevertheless outside pressure and assumptions of the Chinese punishment agencies can be seen as a force that headed the reformation within the judicial system (The Economist). Modifications and improvements within the system have worked to substantially lower the capital punishment rates. However public support and ideas that the death sentence is needed as a deterrent for crime within China, work to demonstrate that abolition of the death penalty is unlikely to be in the near future. Work to improve the process however, is continuously considered.


Trevaskes, S. (2012) The Death Penalty in Contemporary Modern China. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.


Liang, B., Lu, H., Miethe, T.D. and Zhang, L. (2006) ‘Sources of variation of pro-death penalty attitudes in China: An exploration study of student home and abroad’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol 46(1) pp.119-130.


Hood, R. (2009) ‘Abolition of the death penalty: China in world perspective’, City UHKL Rev, Vol 1(1).


The Economist (2013)  ‘Death Penalty: Strike Less Hard’, August 3 [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 4 March 2014).


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