Lately, the nation’s attention was turned to the news that Beijing will use lethal injection to carry out all death sentences by the end of the year. Having reflected on this issue, my conclusion is that this is in step with China’s course toward eventual abolition of the death penalty.
The Chinese government has always indicated that, in the long term, we eventually want to abolish the death penalty, but the present conditions are not yet ripe. As to precisely when is “eventually,” no one had any idea in the past. But if we consider the reforms to China’s system of capital punishment over the past 10-plus years and the achievements they have brought about, perhaps we have reason to be slightly more optimistic for this prospect. The 1996 revision of the Criminal Procedure Law added lethal injection as a method for carrying out the death penalty. The background for this legislation was a consideration of the requirement made in the “Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty,” passed by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, which called on countries that had not yet abolished the death penalty to carry out executions “so as to inflict the minimum possible suffering.” After careful study, legislators decided that, compared to execution by gunshot, lethal injection was better able to reduce the pain of the executed and even more able to preserve the corpses of those executed and prevent the bloody spectacles brought about by execution by gunshot, such as the bursting of brain tissue. Since time was still needed for the development of drugs, construction of facilities, and training of personnel, the traditional method of execution by gunshot was retained at that time.
Beginning with the first use of lethal injection for execution in Kunming in 1997, lethal injection has been promoted in varying degrees in places throughout the country. Starting last year, the Supreme People’s Court began providing lethal injection drugs to local courts free of charge, indicating its attitude toward the gradual replacement of gunshot with lethal injection as a mode of execution. Shortly after this year’s “National Human Rights Action Plan” was issued, Beijing’s stance toward accelerated implementation of lethal injection fills people with hope for an early end to the lack of uniformity in execution methods and the replacement nationally of gunshot with lethal injection for the execution of capital punishment.
Reform of execution methods is not an isolated thing. First, this is the embodiment of the humanization of punishment and those who carry out punishment. Historically, forms of capital punishment have been split between those that “deprive a person of his or her life” and those that “in addition to depriving a person of his or her life, cause the executed to experience pain and suffering”—the latter including “slow slicing” (lingchi), exposure of the decapitated head (xiaoshou), and mutilation of the corpse (lushi). At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Shen Jiaben strongly advocated unifying execution methods and the abolition of “slow slicing,” exposure of the decapitated head, mutilation of the corpse, and other methods that “cause the executed to experience pain and suffering.” After the revolution, we carried out executions by gunshot for a long time. Though, given contemporary historical conditions, execution by gunshot cannot be considered a method that “causes the executed to experience pain and suffering,” when combined with massive sentencing rallies, parading condemned prisoners in the streets, and open-air execution grounds at which spectators gathered to watch the excitement as if at a festival, perhaps it was still [a form of] cruelty that did not take into consideration the dignity or feelings of the condemned and their families. Even more important, this way of doing things induced a culture of social violence and sustained practices that were out of step with the times, such as the death penalty being used as an accepted tool of social control and even a part of people’s daily lives. Now, lethal injections are all carried out in specialized facilities, which will help to slowly eliminate society’s dependence on capital punishment.
Moreover, the gradual replacement of execution by gunshot with lethal injection has been made possible in part by the large-scale decline in the use of capital punishment in China. Beginning on January 1, 2007, the authority over final review of the death penalty in China was restored to the Supreme People’s Court, and death penalties and executions declined dramatically in China following this symbolic event. In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court rejected 15 percent of the death penalty cases it reviewed, and the number of suspended death sentences nationally exceeded the number of death sentences with immediate execution for the first time in many years. [Even] with this reduction in the number of death sentences, odious crimes like setting explosions, murder, and arson actually occurred at a significantly lower rate that year compared to 2006, showing that we can still maintain social order as well or better, even without overly relying on the death penalty. It is precisely because the number of death sentences has declined to such a large extent that places can more quickly satisfy the requirements of lethal injection in terms of things like establishing facilities and mobilizing personnel. According to reports, Beijing only has one facility for carrying out lethal injections. If the number of people to be executed were greater, this would clearly be insufficient.
Looking globally, we can observe a general pattern in Europe and many other countries where the death penalty has been abolished, insofar as these countries have all followed this kind of path: They started with a large number of crimes being eligible for the death penalty, later limited [its use] only in serious murder cases, and finally completely abolished capital punishment. They started with widespread use of the death penalty, later used it more and more infrequently as a kind of “symbolic penalty,” and then completely stopped using it altogether. They started with many different ways of carrying out executions and chose methods involving more or less pain and humiliation depending on [the circumstances of] the individual to be executed, and later they began unifying the methods of capital punishment and employing the method causing the least pain in all cases. They went from “raising troops and mobilizing the masses” to carry out an execution to gradually removing capital punishment from public view. Looking back on the path China has followed with respect to capital punishment and its implementation, I think that it is in line with the logic and experience of eventual abolition of the death penalty.
- 刑法的人道化历程, 刘仁文, 南方周末, 2009年6月18日; "The course of humanization of the criminal law," Liu Renwen, Southern Weekend, June 18, 2009 (Chinese only)