Critics Decry China’s Sweeping Use of Death Penalty


A kilogram of heroin sealed Ding Aguo’s doom.

On June 22, the 31-year-old woman was executed by firing squad here along with six other people convicted of drug trafficking. The next day, 11 drug dealers in the city of Chengdu were rounded up, paraded before a stadium of spectators, then led away to be shot.

Within a single week, authorities put to death at least 48 people as part of an aggressive national anti-drug campaign. More than a dozen others also were executed for committing violent crimes.

It was par for the course for China, which executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, for crimes ranging from murder to embezzlement to antiques theft.


The country’s liberal application of the death penalty has drawn fire from a host of Western countries. France and Germany regularly raise the issue in talks with Beijing. Australia, Britain and Canada make it part of their human rights dialogues with China.

The only major Western power not to protest China’s use of the death penalty is a fellow advocate of it: the United States, whose support of capital punishment yokes Beijing and its usual human rights nemesis in an awkward solidarity over a practice most industrialized nations condemn.

“The U.S. is not exactly in a position to talk about the issue” with China, Catherine Baber, a researcher with Amnesty International, noted dryly.

The sheer number of executions here is staggering.

Since 1990, at least 18,008 people have been put to death. Last year alone, Amnesty International logged 1,077 executions here--an average of nearly three a day--while the rest of the world’s countries that practice capital punishment, including nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, together racked up 736. Ninety-eight of those executions were in the United States.

Experts believe that the number of executions in China is even higher than estimated because the government doesn’t publicize all executions and has deemed the exact count a “state secret.”

“The [complete] figures,” Baber said, “would be mind-boggling.”

Judges in China hand down the death sentence not only for violent crimes such as murder and rape but for offenses considered far less egregious elsewhere.


Bribe-taking, tax evasion and credit card fraud on a big scale can all command the death penalty. So can stealing “cultural relics,” as three thieves discovered earlier this year after pilfering a set of ancient murals.

Political separatists in restive Xinjiang province in the west have been put to death, as was a drunk driver who hit a pedestrian, sped off and left his victim to die.

Even pandering and forcible prostitution, in extreme cases, can earn an offender the ultimate punishment. In the 1980s, a Chinese actor faced the firing squad for tricking women into having sex with him by promising jobs and other favors--a grim twist on the casting couch.

More Capital Crimes

The high number of executions here dovetails with a significant broadening of the definition of capital crime during the last two decades.

In 1979, only 28 types of offenses, including “counterrevolutionary” activity, merited being put to death. But by 1995, in response to a spiraling crime rate in China’s new go-go society, the list had expanded to 74 and incorporated an increasing number of nonviolent offenses, especially economic ones.

The following year, 1996, produced China’s bloodiest execution record in the last two decades. As part of the Communist regime’s fierce “Strike Hard” crackdown on crime, more than 4,000 people were believed to have been executed--an average of 11 executions every day.


Yet the U.S. has largely stayed silent on China’s use of the death penalty, despite Washington’s insistence that human rights remain a core element of its ties with Beijing. Officially, the U.S., as a prominent practitioner of capital punishment, doesn’t weigh in on other nations’ right to mete out the death penalty. This explains why, for at least the last two or three years, Washington has failed to lodge a single official protest with Beijing over the frequency with which criminals are put to death.

In fact, Chinese officials often justify their use of capital punishment by citing its practice in the U.S. In talks with nations that have outlawed the death penalty and urged China to follow suit, the world’s biggest Communist country feels it’s on safe ground because of the world’s most powerful democracy.

“It’s nice [for Beijing] to be able to point to the United States and say, ‘They’re just as bad,’ ” said a European diplomat here who participates in discussions with China on human rights. “So the death penalty is a comfortable issue for them--more so than political reform.”

Because of American silence, it has been left to other countries to call attention to China’s ready application of the death penalty. Perhaps the most vocal critic is the European Union, which ranks abolition of capital punishment worldwide as one of its prime social objectives.

“Definitely, it’s on top of the agenda, and that’s a key difference with the U.S.,” said Philippe van Amersfoort, the EU’s human rights officer in Beijing.

“It’s a question of principle,” he said. “We try to encourage China to adopt some kind of moratorium on the death penalty, maybe an experimental moratorium in one province or two.”


So far, Beijing has rejected the suggestion. Public support of the death penalty remains high--as much as 97%, according to a 1995 survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A sizable proportion of the population, dismayed by a jump in crime rates, wants to see the use of capital punishment expanded even further, as has happened to a degree in the United States.

Corruption Is Targeted

Executions for economic crimes are extremely popular, particularly as the poor in China watch a swelling elite enrich itself through shady practices or misuse of public funds.

The state-run New China News Agency said today that Cheng Kejie, a former vice chairman of the National People’s Congress--China’s highest lawmaking body--had been sentenced to death for taking almost $5 million in bribes.

“If you don’t use severe penalties to scare them, they would be even more unbridled,” said Lei Ming, 34, a Beijing schoolteacher.

“Chinese tradition emphasizes retribution,” said Hu Yunteng, one of the few scholars here who study the death penalty, a politically sensitive topic in the eyes of image-conscious Beijing. “This traces all the way back to the Han Dynasty,” 2,000 years ago.


Ancient proverbs reinforce the need for retribution and for heavy punishment to deter others. “Take a life, owe a life,” one maxim goes. Another advises, “Kill the monkey to scare the chickens.”

Justice can be brutally swift, with reports of some executions occurring hours after a sentencing.

Due process is often a phantom. Chinese law requires that the nation’s highest judicial body, the Supreme People’s Court, review all death sentences, but the high court regularly delegates the responsibility to provincial judges.

Executions are mostly by gunshot, sometimes to the back of the head at point-blank range. At least one province is experimenting with lethal injection.

But there is growing demand among many Chinese scholars for the regime to rein in capital punishment. Academics point out that a reduction of the death penalty’s scope is necessary to bring China in line with the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Beijing has signed but not yet ratified.

Advocates of limiting the death penalty--outright abolition is politically impossible for now, they say--take heart from a few changes in the past few years.


Beijing has eliminated the death penalty for criminals younger than 18. Lesser infractions, such as petty theft and mild forms of hooliganism, were struck from the list of capital offenses in 1997. Now, 68 capital crimes remain on the books, down slightly from the 74 in 1995.

“Abolishing the death penalty is a long road,” Hu said. “You have to go step by step.”

But the death penalty has already divided at least one family: the Wangs of Nantong, a city north of Shanghai.

Acting in a fit of jealous rage last year, 28-year-old Wang Yi splashed a cup of sulfuric acid on her younger sister and her baby nephew, horribly disfiguring both mother and son.

Wang was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. She now languishes in prison, awaiting the execution her injured sister wholeheartedly supports.

“She destroyed my son. How can he face the future?” the sister, Wang Di, said in an interview. “If Wang Yi gets the death penalty she deserves, it would at least be a sort of compensation for my son.”

Her parents, however, are not so sure, insisting that their elder daughter is mentally ill and should be spared. The couple are scrambling to appeal the death sentence and to find a doctor to conduct a thorough evaluation of Wang Yi’s mental state.


Their younger daughter refuses to speak to them. But the two women’s father, torn by conflicting loyalties, soldiers on in his quest to reverse his elder daughter’s sentence before it’s too late.

What had once seemed so self-evident to him--the raw justice of capital punishment--is far less certain now.

“If Wang Yi suffers from mental illness, she will have been unjustly charged and sentenced,” Wang Jianping said.

“I think abolishing the death penalty is a humane act, as some foreign countries have already done,” he continued, after some reflection. “It’s a symbol of social development and civilization.”