China and the death penalty

First published: 24 May 2006

An earlier article (‘The US Gulag’ – 22 May) pointed out that in terms of the relative size of their populations the US has six times as many people in prison as China, and that it is clear from the statistics of ethnic composition of those imprisoned that this greater rate of imprisonment in the US specifically hits racial minorities. In short the US has not only an extremely large scale but also a racist gulag. Knowledge of such data is obviously extremely relevant to judging the lack of credibility to be given to US government protestations concerning its supposed commitment to human rights, as opposed to economic and military self-interest, in criticising China.

Nevertheless the reason for defending China against attacks by hypocritical and self-interested US governments is that the situation since the revolution of 1949 is better than that which existed before, or any alternative that would be imposed by the US, not that the situation is remotely ‘heaven on earth’ or cannot be improved. One area in which the situation in China is both unacceptable in itself and self-defeating is the application of the death penalty.

The reasons for opposing the death penalty in any state are well known. The death penalty is simultaneously irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent. In terms of argument and evidence it has never been shown in any country that has carried out a serious study of the issue that the death penalty, at least during peace, deters crime more effectively than other punishments. In ‘advanced’ countries, such as the US, regions in which the death penalty is used most extensively typically do not have the lowest but the highest levels of murders. It is for such reasons that the international movement towards the abolition of the death penalty has made substantial progress. In 1977 only 16 countries had abolished capital punishment for all crimes. By 2005 this figure had reached 86 ( The annual resolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights calling on countries that have not abolished the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions was in April 2005 co-sponsored by 81 UN states – the highest number ever.

In recent history the most frequent use of the death penalty per head of population has been in Singapore – itself a useful index of the authoritarianism of that society. The United Nations estimates that in Singapore from 1994 to 1999 there were 13.57 executions a year per one million of the population – equivalent to 17,600 executions a year in a country with a population the size of China’s. The next highest rate was in Saudi Arabia with 4.65 executions per year per million of the population – equivalent to 6,000 executions a year in a country with the population of China. Naturally as both Singapore and Saudi Arabia are allies of the US there has been no significant campaign by the latter criticising their scale of use of the death penalty – only Iran and China, which have per head of the population lower rates of execution than Singapore or Saudi Arabia, have been subject to such campaigns.

In terms of absolute numbers of applications of the death penalty in 2005 Amnesty International estimated that at least 1,770 people were executed in China, although the true figure was believed to be significantly higher. This is equivalent to 1.36 executions per million of the population. Iran executed at least 94 people, equivalent to 1.34 per million of the population. Saudi Arabia executed at least 86, equivalent to 3.44 per one million of the population. There were 60 executions in the USA, equivalent to 0.2  per million of the population. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US accounted for 94 per cent of all executions
worldwide ( Therefore per head of the population Singapore in the last decade executed roughly 10 times as many people as China, Saudi Arabia about two and half times as many, Iran approximately the same number, and the US around one sixth as many.

It is however the combination of the large size of its population and the high rate of executions by international standards that means China dominates international absolute statistics for application of the death penalty. Furthermore the figures collected by Amnesty International undoubtedly underestimate the number of applications of the death penalty in China. Such underestimates also apply with other countries but because of the large number of executions in China it is the most significant case in world terms. In 2004, 3,400 executions in China were officially acknowledged. Admissions on numbers by Chinese legal experts range up to 8,000. Other estimates, mainly by bodies opposed to the Chinese government and therefore with an interest in high estimates, range up to 10,000. The reason for lack of clarity is that the number of executions is a state secret – itself not acceptable. The use of executions on such a scale is both unacceptable in itself and, based on the experience of all countries, will be ineffective.

China has recently showed some reaction on the issue of the death penalty. In 2004 senior judicial officials issued an instruction to judges urging caution in the use of the death penalty and media in China have reported that the government has taken back the final approval for capital  punishment from the provincial supreme courts to the Supreme People’s Court – although since 12 February 1980 such authority has been delegated from this to the High People’s Courts.

China has lifted several hundred million people out of poverty, it has established a literacy rate 50 per cent higher than a comparable country such as India, it has created a life expectancy eight years longer than India. These are among the greatest achievements in human history. Its application of the death penalty however is wrong, unacceptable, ineffective and stupid policy and damages rather than aids the Chinese state. Those who recognise the achievements of the Chinese state, made possible through its revolution of 1949, which is one of the greatest events in human history, have the right and duty to oppose the use of the death penalty in China as inhumane, inevitably striking the innocent, ineffective, and against the fundamental interests of China. Much less importantly, but still of note, few steps would more improve the international picture of China than ending executions.