China Policy Institute: Analysis


death penalty

Corruption and the Death Penalty

Written by Bin Liang.

On Monday, July 4, 2016, Ling Jihua was sentenced to life imprisonment by the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court of Tianjin after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and for abuse of power. Upon hearing his sentence, Ling read aloud from a prepared script stating that he did not contest the conviction and “thanked” the court and the lawyers for their work. Ling is a former Chinese politician and one of the principal political advisers of Hu Jintao, the former President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He served as the Director of the General Office of the Communist Party from 2007 to 2012, and was seen as a promising candidate for promotion to the top leadership at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Continue reading “Corruption and the Death Penalty”

Li Yan reprieved – a step forward for victims of domestic violence in China?

Written by Jackie Sheehan.

It is welcome news that Li Yan, despite being sentenced to death for a second time at her retrial in Sichuan last week for killing her abusive husband, has had the sentence suspended for two years, meaning that it will almost certainly be commuted to life imprisonment. However, as the Beijing law firm representing her commented, this remains “the second worst verdict” possible in a criminal case, and the much-anticipated new Domestic Violence Law, had it already been in force, might only have been of limited help to Li.

Li Yan’s marriage to Tan Yong in 2009 marked the start of 18 months of sustained violence, as her husband beat her, burned her face with lit cigarettes, banged her head against a wall, cut off part of her finger, and locked her out on a balcony with few clothes on in the middle of winter. She was sexually abused as well, and after the announcement of last week’s verdict, a member of her legal team disclosed that her husband had also sexually abused their young daughter.

She repeatedly asked for help and protection from the police and the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), neither of whom did what they were already supposed to do when approached by a victim of domestic violence, even without the clearer requirements which will be placed on them if, as expected, the new Law comes into force later this year. Many other victims besides Li report that police, ACWF staff or members of their neighbourhood committee just told them to try not to antagonize their violent husband again and sent them home when they sought help.

Things came to a head in Li’s case in November 2010, when her husband had kicked her and threatened to shoot her with his air rifle. She managed to take the gun from him and beat him to death with it, and then tried to dispose of his dismembered body, which may have been a factor in the death sentence she originally received – more recent sentencing guidance from the Supreme Court has mentioned concealing a victim’s body as an aggravating factor in cases of domestic violence.

At the original trial, it was found that there was insufficient evidence of the prolonged and severe abuse Li claimed to have experienced in her marriage, although she had gone to the police more than once, who photographed her injuries but took no other action. Second time round, testimony from neighbours and relatives confirmed her entire story – yet the result was still a death sentence, commuted because, in a memorable understatement by the court, her husband “was also at fault”.

The new Domestic Violence Law requires the police to attend any reported incident of domestic violence and promptly secure evidence at the scene, but if the perpetrator’s conduct is not judged to amount to a criminal offence, the Law says only that police “may” issue a written warning. Li Yan herself, through her lawyers, submitted comments on the draft of the new Law, and she highlighted the importance of Personal Safety Protection Rulings (restraining orders) for victims of domestic violence, saying that if she had been able to protect herself in this way while seeking a divorce, she would never have ended up killing her husband.

Li stressed in her comments on the Law that “a victim should be able to request a personal protection order from the court at any point”, but even when the Law comes into force, these orders will only be available to individuals who are bringing a civil court action against their abuser, e.g. for divorce or custody of their children. They will last a maximum of 6 months, and the courts have 48 hours to decide whether to issue an order and another 24 hours to inform the parties of it, making 72 hours in which a perpetrator of domestic violence, if not in custody, will be free to continue their abuse.

Commentary on the weakness of the Domestic Violence Law around restraining orders has attributed it to reluctance by the Chinese authorities to promise too much by way of legal protection for potentially a huge number of victims while the courts and police are unable to follow through in practice, for fear of bringing the new provisions into disrepute as soon as they are put to the test. Given how clearly the need for properly enforced restraining orders has been pointed out, however, including by victims like Li, it is very disappointing that more hasn’t been done to provide this protection under the new Law.

Li was fighting for her life when she finally killed her abusive husband, but the longer-term psychological damage caused by domestic violence is seldom treated as a mitigating factor in cases like these. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is regarded as something which typically results from a single traumatic incident, so psychiatrists were dispatched from Beijing to help survivors of the knife attack at Kunming Station in which 33 people died in March 2014, but women like Li Yan don’t even receive a psychological assessment to help decide whether they should be held criminally responsible for their actions.

This helps to explain why there are so many women in China serving prison terms for murdering violent partners. Homicide is not that common a crime in the PRC; according to successive Statistical Yearbooks, it has been trending downwards from 0.68% of the total number of criminal cases recorded by police in 2000 to only 0.16% in 2013. But women prisoners convicted of murder in one provincial prison in 2013 constituted nearly 8% of inmates, the fourth largest category after those convicted of drugs offences, theft and fraud, according to Anqi Shen’s 2014 book, Offending Women in Contemporary China. And despite some claims that average sentences for such women are becoming lighter, a 2011 study found that 59% of women in a prison in Li Yan’s home province of Sichuan convicted of killing or injuring their husband were serving a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment, while 88% were serving more than 10 years.

Li Yan may have had 400 lawyers and women’s-rights activists petitioning the authorities over the injustice of her original sentence, but this was not the only lobbying taking place over the case. Li Yan’s former in-laws, reportedly an influential family locally, have pushed strongly for her execution, even threatening suicide if the verdict did not go their way, and at the second trial members of the family swore at her lawyers and threw shoes at them, with one shouting in court that her (female) lawyers “should be raped 500 times” for defending her. Laws, even good ones, can only do so much in a society where men’s interests automatically outrank women’s, and where even abused women themselves are socialized to regard their suffering as a fate to be endured rather than a wrong to be righted.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork, and a Regular Contributor to the CPI blog. Image Credit: CC by Kenneth Lu/Flickr.

Taiwan’s soft power and the death penalty

By Gary Rawnsley.

On 7 December 2012, Amnesty International called on Taiwan’s government to resist public pressure to reinstate the death penalty. This comes after a 10 year old boy was murdered in Tainan at the beginning of December and claims that the murderer is not afraid because of Taiwan’s retreat from enforcing capital punishment. Several demonstrations called for the murderer to be executed and the Ministry of Justice has said that ‘executions must be carried out’ but has not yet set a date.

A marker of a civilisation is how people are treated: children, the sick, the elderly, victims of crimes and the criminals themselves. While the trauma that victims and their families experience should be neither forgotten nor ignored, a civilised society also avoids murdering the perpetrators.

This is a moral argument, but morals also provide society with an extraordinary amount of soft power capital.

My core belief about Taiwan’s soft power strategy is that it emphasises the wrong story: the narratives of Taiwan’s successful democratisation and its current position as the first Chinese democracy are routinely ignored in favour of attempts to label Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. However, there is a significant flaw in my argument to which I need to draw attention, and that flaw is the continued use of the death penalty.

A report by the BBC earlier this year (link to the source) highlighted how Taiwan’s judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever). While this is hardly unique to Taiwan – all countries which maintain the death penalty risk making mistakes in sentencing the innocent to such a fate – this practice does constrain Taiwan’s image as a maturing democracy and as a contrast to the PRC. Criticism by important organisations such as the European Union, and Amnesty International, more used to pointing the finger at the PRC than at Taiwan, has damaged its soft power.

However, I would suggest that what is more worrying than the fact that Taiwan maintains this barbaric practice, is that the political elites fear the wrath of public opinion should they decide to abolish the death penalty. Just because ‘surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it’ does not make it right; sometimes leaders have to lead against public opinion – that is as much a characteristic of democracy as following it, and the government must respond carefully but with authority to the current demonstrations in favour of the death penalty. President Ma Ying-jeou, a keen advocate of ‘Soft power’, ended a short three year moratorium (2006-9) and appointed Justice Tseng Yung-fu who ordered four people executed in 2010 and a further five in 2011. 15 convicts were sentenced to death at the Supreme Court last year. It is to Taiwan’s credit that although these convicts were sentenced, no-one has been executed in 2012. Most worrying is that there is no procedure that allows for anyone sentenced to death to seek a pardon or for the sentence to be commuted. This is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the Legislative Yuan has voted to implement. Again, the victim is Taiwan’s international reputation as a democratic political system.

There are now 61 inmates serving time on death row. If Taiwan really wants to project itself as a benevolent democracy – and to provide an alternative to authoritarian rule in the PRC – then the complete abolition of the death penalty despite public opinion may just help elevate its international image and thus gather for Taiwan a little more support, respect and sympathy.

Gary D. Rawnsley is non-residential Senior Fellow in CPI.  Click here to visit his personal blog.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

Revisiting death penalty: Wu Ying’s Execution

By Mike Bastin.

Wu Ying, the latest non-violent criminal conviction in China for which the death penalty has been meted out, continues to divide public opinion.

Surely this is, therefore, another opportune time to revisit the strengths and weaknesses of this punishment, particularly where no physical violence whatsoever has taken place.

Wu, at one point China’s 6th richest woman, still only 30, now appears more likely than ever to face the death penalty after her appeal against financial fraud was rejected recently. It was Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that arrived at this decision on the grounds that Wu ‘brought huge losses to the nation and people with her severe crimes, and should therefore be severely punished’.  The  ourt found that Wu had swindled 390 million RMB from a total of 11 people by convincing them to invest in her companies with the assurance of high returns, but then subsequently used the money for personal consumption.

Assuming Wu is guilty of this crime, the issue now is the degree of ‘fit’ between crime and punishment. Furthermore, is there ever any justification for the death penalty, no matter how serious the crime?

It was Remy de Gourmont who stated that those who are in favour of the death penalty have more affinity with assassins than those who are not.

Firstly, let’s kill the myth that opponents of the death penalty are often sentimentalists, motivated by compassion for those convicted of appalling crime. They may be, quite understandably, somewhat motivated by sympathy for others branded as criminals, who in more rational, more just, or kinder dispensations would not be criminals at all. They might also understand, although neither condone nor forgive, murder committed in the un-meditated grip of passion. Such attitudes are prompted by sympathy for the difficulties that can divert a life into making a hell for itself and others – or just for the frailties of the human spirit, so numerous and sometimes so final that they seem to be its destiny.

But it does not follow that opposition to capital punishment arises from sympathy for people who commit serious crime. Cold, calculating murderers, for example, are contemptible scums, who kill not only their victims but a part of each member of their victims’ families. Serious embezzlement also exacts a life-time of abject misery for those cheated and their families.

Absolutely nothing excuses it. Lock the door and through away the key!

No matter the perceived gravity of the crime, killing the criminal is never the answer. Never.

So, why exactly is capital punishment most definitely not the answer? Not in China nor Chile nor the Czech Republic!

There are a multitude of reasons why, but one is paramount. It has nothing to do with respect for the criminal, or their rights, or the possible sanctity of his/her dangerous life. No, it has everything to do with respect for ourselves, and the kind of society we should strive to establish and maintain. The point is simple: we should refuse to lower ourselves to a level anywhere near the perpetrator’s own.

Put simply, no one but no one deserves the death penalty, no matter how heinous the criminal act. For China to continue to carry out cold blood killing as a result of court order is to perpetuate the most barbaric, inhumane, societal values. China’s country image can ill-afford such an evil association.

Mike Bastin is PhD student at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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