China’s Death Penalty Debate, my oped in today’s New York Times

China’s Death-Penalty Debate


BEIJING — There was an ear-splitting whistle and Kong Ning, a young supervising officer from Beijing, saw blood spurt from the bodies of the 34 prisoners, all men in their 20s and 30s, kneeling in a row in front of her. One man’s head was blown off completely. She collapsed on the muddy ground.

Ms. Kong was traumatized by the executions, which she watched over on a bitterly cold day in November 1983, when China’s first wave of “strike-hard” campaigns against rising crime was in full swing. After the event, she quit her job and became a lawyer in the hope of defending people unjustly accused of crime. But over the years she suffered several mental breakdowns, at one point being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a few months. Now, she always dresses in black — and she always wears a bulletproof vest.

In 2006, she started to paint, primarily as a way to cope with the trauma that had changed her life. She has also staged performances, reliving that terrifying incident.

Beyond the forays into art, Ms. Kong tells her story every chance she gets, hoping to expose the cruelty of the death penalty, calling for its abolition in China and the rest of the world. Her story and interviews have been published in art magazines and have been circulated on the Internet.

This jailer-turned-lawyer-turned-artist may be one of a kind. But Ms. Kong is not alone. In addition to a band of committed and courageous human rights lawyers, there are others publicly advocating the abolition of capital punishment.

The subject has also caught on with the general public. In the past decade, there has been increased debate among Chinese people, often triggered by high-profile cases such as those involving a cop-killer, Yang Jia, or an illegal fund-raiser, Wu Ying. Only two decades ago, a topic like the death penalty — involving the state’s administration of justice — was just not part of the public dialogue.


But people now have greater freedom to express themselves, especially on the Internet. Also, since everything regarding the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy (the number of executions is still a state secret), the public is interested in any small bits of information that slowly emerge. At the end of 2011, images of prisoners on death row at a Wuhan prison were leaked on the Internet and sparked a fresh round of discussion.

A majority of Chinese people support capital punishment, often citing the traditional saying “to repay a tooth with a tooth and to pay back blood with blood.” Such an attitude isn’t too surprising for a culture that places less importance on individual life than does the Western humanist tradition.

But as China’s engagement with the rest of the world deepens, views are changing. Many Chinese have learned that most European countries and many states in America have banned capital punishment. And more and more people, particularly those who are better educated, have accepted the concept of respecting human life, human dignity and human rights, even the rights of a criminal.

Continue reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

This change of attitude is reflected in a steady decline in public support for capital punishment. In 1995, a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Science indicated that 95 percent of ordinary Chinese supported the death penalty; in 2003, an online survey showed that some 83 percent of those polled opposed abolition, but by 2008, the percentage of opposition was reduced to 67 percent, according to an online survey by Sina, a popular website. In this survey, some 22 percent indicated that they believed China ought to reduce the use of the death penalty, especially for nonviolent crimes. In addition, the death penalty happens to be one of the topics for open discussion that is now tolerated by the authorities.

Capital punishment has always been used by the Chinese Communists to maintain social stability, political order and to curb crime. In 1983, as a result of the strike-hard campaign, the power to approve capital punishment was given to the high court of each province — and it is believed that 24,000 death sentences were issued that year. Some criminals met their deaths for nonviolent offenses, such as selling fake train tickets.

Prisoners on death row were also treated badly. Ms. Kong recalls how the 34 prisoners killed on her watch were awoken at 4 a.m. on the day of their execution, told bluntly that their appeals had been rejected and that they would be shot that very day.

Prison officials then tied the hands of the condemned men behind their backs, and the cuffs of their uniform pants were tightly fastened with hemp string — this way if a prisoner lost control of his bowels he would not soil the floor too much. To calm them down, prisoners were injected with a tranquilizer through their padded cotton pants. Then officials force-fed them steamed bread rolls for a last meal.

There has been progress since then. Prisoners on death row are now allowed to wash and even order their favorite dishes before heading to the execution ground. And more importantly, China has carried out fewer and fewer executions over the years. This trend has become more pronounced since 2007, when the Supreme People’s Court took back the power to review death sentences from the provincial courts.

Perhaps the authorities are making an effort to minimize the fact that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Perhaps our leaders are reducing the use of the death penalty to showcase their determination to shift toward the rule of law.

In October, Beijing announced a proposal to remove an additional nine nonviolent crimes from the list of offenses punishable by capital punishment, including illegal fund-raising and weapons smuggling. Other intended reforms include reducing the judicial use of capital punishment and amending procedural law to control its use.

Such positive measures are clearly in response to changing public opinion. “We must learn to respect life and slowly abolish the death penalty in China,” said the artist Kong Ning.

The public and the authorities are coming around, but we shouldn’t move too slowly.

Lijia Zhang is the author of “Socialism Is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.”

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