China’s death penalty reform
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China’s death penalty reform

The death penalty has long been a feature of China’s justice system, but recent news suggests it might become less common in the future. On Monday, Chinese State media reported that a draft amendment to the Criminal Law had been submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). The proposal would abolish capital punishment for nine categories of crime, including smuggling weapons, ammunition, nuclear materials and counterfeit currency; counterfeiting currency; raising funds by means of fraud; arranging for or forcing another person to engage in prostitution; obstructing a commander or a person on duty from performing his duties and fabricating rumors to mislead others during wartime.

The last time that China amended the Criminal Law to restrict the use of capital punishment was in 2011, when the government scrapped 13 cases in which such a measure could be adopted.

On Tuesday, China Daily reported the opinion of Zhao Bingzhi, a Professor of Criminal Law at Beijing Normal University. Bingzhi said that the aim of the amendment is to protect human rights, something that, as the paper remarked, is also “the requirement of ongoing judicial reform.”

Currently, it is possible to incur capital punishment for 55 crimes, but the actual number of people executed is not public. It is, in fact, considered a state secret. Estimates are left to the care of independent organizations, which regularly point out that the Chinese justice system is the biggest executioner in the world.

An article published this year by Amnesty International stated that, in 2013, executions were recorded in 22 countries and that the overall number of reported executions worldwide had increased by almost 15% since 2012. However, the organization cautioned that “As in previous years, this figure does not include the thousands of people executed in China; with the death penalty treated as a state secret, the lack of reliable data does not allow Amnesty International to publish credible minimum figures for China.”

The reform would fit a recent trend which has seen a steady decrease in the number of people executed by Chinese authorities. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based human rights organization, China executed about 2,400 people in 2013: a gigantic figure, accounting for more than the rest of the world put together, but much lower than the numbers reported in previous years. To make a comparison, according to Dui Hua, China executed 12,000 people in 2002 and another 3,000 in 2013.

The organization, whose data are extrapolated partly from China’s Southern Weekly and partly from confidential sources, pointed out that a major turning point was reached in 2007, when authorities decided that all death penalty sentences have to be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). Dui Hua stated on its website that according to the Southern Weekly, “the number of executions nationwide may have dropped by more than a third with declines of nearly 50 percent in some locales.”

The case of Wu Ying, a wealthy businesswoman arrested for illegally raising funds, spotlighted the importance of the 2007 decision. She was condemned to death in 2009 by a court in Zhejiang Province, but the verdict was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2012 after anger spread among the public.