China syndrome

by Hamish McKenzie / 24 July, 2010
It's a safe bet executions didn't come up when John Key met Wen Jiabao.

Trade was top of the agenda for Prime Minister John Key in China last week; less politically palatable matters are unlikely to have merited a mention.

But as Key met Premier Wen Jiabao and laid out his goal to double two-way trade with China within the next five years, the issue of 23-year-old Zhen Xiao, a Chinese national who in January allegedly murdered Auckland taxi driver Hiren Mohini and fled the country, would have been carefully avoided.

New Zealand has shown its opposition to the death penalty in China by firmly stating no evidence against Xiao will be formally handed over to the Chinese authorities that are to prosecute him until a formal undertaking has been given that he will not be executed, as is usual in China, if convicted.

Last year as many as 5000 people are thought to have been executed in China. The true number, however, is impossible to know. China is world-class at publicising crime statistics, be it the number of crimes committed, punishment meted out, or breakdowns by categories or provinces. It's also not shy about advertising high-profile use of the death penalty, shown last year when a court sentenced two men to death for their roles in the tainted milk scandal. The Government believes the penalty serves as a strong deterrent.

So why does China not publicly state the number of people executed? Randy Peerensboom, a law professor at Melbourne's La Trobe University and the author of the 2007 book China Modernises, says it is because the number is so high "it will invite international criticism".

In the past, Amnesty International has collected death penalty statistics in China by scouring publicly available information, but Catherine Baber, the organisation's deputy director for Asia Pacific, says that method only scratches the surface of the total number of executions. Ironically, she says, China has in recent years cited Amnesty's figures as evidence to suggest its use of the death penalty isn't so bad. Amnesty recently withheld its own figures in protest.

According to Amnesty's past research, China executes more people than any other country in the world - although not as many per capita as Iran and Singapore. In its last death penalty report on China, Amnesty estimated that based on public information, 1718 executions took place in 2008, but said the actual figure was probably much higher.

Most executions are delivered by a single shot to the head from a policeman in a predetermined - but not always fixed - execution ground. Though less common now, executions have been carried out in front of crowds. Since 1997, some executions have been carried out by lethal injection, sometimes in vans set up especially for the purpose.

Death isn't necessarily the end of the indignities for condemned prisoners. The harvesting of death penalty victims' organs to be sold to foreigners for transplant has been - and probably continues to be - widespread. In 2005, the Government admitted the problem and has since promised to set up an organ- donation registry in an effort to reduce its dependence on the practice.

In China, the death penalty can be meted out for non-violent crimes, including corruption, drug trafficking and fraud. Amnesty reports the Government frequently uses the death penalty to reinforce its political agenda - in its crackdown on unrest in Xinjiang last year, for example. The rights of defendants, especially those with mental disabilities, are not adequately protected, says Amnesty, noting that, despite appeals for clemency from both the UN and the UK Government, late last year China executed a 53-year-old British citizen for smuggling 4kg of heroin into the country. The father of three was reported to be mentally ill.

In response to negative publicity after earlier miscarriages of justice in capital-punishment cases, the Government introduced a number of procedural reforms in 2007 to reduce sentencing errors. The most significant among the changes was the introduction of a mandatory review of every death penalty case by the Supreme People's Court.

The Government reports this has resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of executions. If it makes those claims, responds Baber, then it must back them up with execution numbers that can be properly tested by independent sources. But that doesn't mean the Government is lying. The review has caused cases to bottleneck, says Baber, and this has probably resulted in fewer executions since 2007 - "simply because the court would be unable to cope with the volume of cases of sentences that were previously being passed".

The number of countries that have abolished capital punishment has reached 96. Last year there were no executions in Europe, reports Amnesty, noting that as with slavery and apartheid before it, "the world is rejecting this affront to humanity". Yet the challenge with China is that the death penalty remains almost universally popular. Law professor Peerenboom says "96% of Chinese citizens support capital punishment" and "a huge majority want more capital punishment". He points out that most Chinese citizens don't know how their death penalty rate compares with other countries - "so it's not necessarily a well-informed opinion" - but a growing crime rate means the public accept tough punishments.

A vivid illustration of the widespread support for capital punishment recently unfolded in Chongqing, where a crackdown on corruption resulted in the death sentence for former justice department chief Wen Qiang, who was charged with accepting bribes, shielding criminal gangs and the rape of a university student. Meanwhile, support for the local Communist Party boss who initiated the crackdown means he is in line for one of the top national jobs in 2012, when many of the country's leaders, including President Hu Jintao, are expected to retire.

Baber sees the Chongqing case as evidence of a flawed system. "It's a classic example of an attempt to be seen to be tough on crime that translates into the imposition of some death sentences, rather than roots-and-branch addressing underlying issues - addressing weaknesses in checks and balances in the system, addressing transparency issues - all of which would be of much more effect against the levels of corruption currently in China."

She believes there is some opposition to China's use of the death penalty within the country - especially in cases involving non-violent crimes and poorer people - and that momentum will grow.

"What has changed in recent years is the willingness of some local media to dig more deeply into some cases, and through those efforts and the efforts of lawyers and academics in China, a whole host of cases of miscarriages of justice have been brought to light in recent years that the authorities have been forced to respond to."

Few Chinese citizens realise how out of line their Government's use of the penalty is compared with other countries, Baber says. "I remember some years ago being invited to give a speech in China on the death penalty and public opinion, and the audience was very shocked that their record was on a par with some countries in the Middle East. They didn't like that comparison in the slightest."

The hopes for abolition or major reform of capital punishment, however, remain slight. As its economic star rises, China may be even more resistant to outside influence than in recent years. In just the second round of human rights talks between the US and China since 2002, the two countries reported no breakthroughs last month from two days of meetings in Washington DC. Peerenboom says for China's Government, unlike in Western countries, capital punishment is not high on the priority list of issues to address. "This is one area where they can give in to popular demand, and it serves their purposes. China's not driven by inter-national pressures, but by its own domestic concerns and calculus."

Even if Key did mention its human rights record, there's little indication China's stance on executions will change - and that's probably not the news Zhen Xiao wants to hear.

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