- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

BEIJING — A young farmer was just minutes from being executed last year when an unprecedented reprieve by the Supreme People’s Court spared his life. Dong Wei had been sentenced to death for killing another farmer in a fight outside a dance hall, though he said he had hit the other man with a brick in self-defense.

His family learned of his sentence just a few days before his scheduled punishment. They hired a lawyer, who urgently drew up documents, took a train to Beijing and got the nation’s highest court to call off the execution four minutes before the farmer was to be shot, according to accounts in the state-run media.

Later, the Shaanxi provincial court re-examined the evidence, as ordered by the high court, and determined that it had made the right decision. Five months after his dramatic reprieve, Dong was executed.

His case caused an uproar in the country, where capital punishment is routine. China performs more executions than the rest of the world combined, though the number is a state secret.

“After that case, people started questioning the appropriateness of the death penalty,” said Chen Xinliang, a law professor at Peking University. “In the past, people always thought the death penalty was right and proper. Now people can see that it does have problems.”

Amnesty International recorded 1,060 executions in China last year, but believes the actual number is higher. Critics say the death penalty is used arbitrarily and too extensively, even for many nonviolent crimes, but any discussion of abolishing or amending it has been taboo — until recently.

A low-key, first-of-its-kind academic conference in China was held on the topic late last year, and the official media have been cautiously stirring public debate on the issue, an indication that the communist regime may be willing to consider reforms. Even some letters to the editor have begun appearing in Chinese newspapers expressing concern about the death penalty.

“Before, it was very mysterious. No one dared talk about abolishing the death penalty,” said Liu Renwen, a scholar at the Institute of Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Now people are discussing it more in the media and so forth. We think it’s a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more people will be interested.”

Mr. Liu has been asked by a Chinese publisher to write a book on the topic, and Wang Shizhou, a professor of criminal law at Peking University, is fielding numerous calls from mainland reporters.

The scholars say reform will occur slowly in China, and they hope a start will be to reduce the imposition of the death penalty for nonviolent crimes. The criminal code has 68 capital crimes, including corruption, smuggling, counterfeiting currency and organizing prostitution.

An important first step, Mr. Wang said, would be to reveal the number of executions.

“You can kill the person. Just tell us who was killed and why,” he said. “If these kinds of small steps are not accepted by the government, then it’s no use to talk about the big steps.”

China, with 1.3 billion people, has said it has a high number of executions because its population is large, and that it is not ready to abolish the death penalty.

But Mr. Chen said the government is obviously uncomfortable with the widespread use of the death penalty, especially as more countries abolish it.

“It shows authorities don’t feel assured that large-scale use of the death penalty is right,” he said. “If authorities felt it were open and aboveboard, they wouldn’t keep it a secret.”

Despite international criticism, the government sees the death penalty as a way to boost social stability and deter crime.

“They think the more executions there are, the more effective it will be in reducing crime,” Mr. Liu said.

The scholars say China’s system relies too heavily on punishment as a deterrent, and not enough on real crime prevention. For example, instead of putting controls in place to prevent corruption or burglary, authorities prefer to catch a few corrupt people or thieves and sentence and execute them in a high-profile way, exemplifying the Chinese proverb, “Killing the chicken to scare the monkey.”

Periodic “Strike Hard” campaigns, in which police are pressed to catch criminals in a show of force to reassure the public, result in even more executions. Amnesty International recorded 2,468 in 2001, a “Strike Hard” year, more than double the number last year.

Retribution is an important part of executions in China. Before the condemned are killed, they sometimes are paraded in public before jeering crowds. Their photos often hang on public bulletins with big red marks through the names. After Yunnan province announced that it would execute some criminals by lethal injection in mobile units around the region, readers wrote to newspapers complaining that the method let off criminals too easily and that they should be shot.

“People place a low value on life,” Mr. Chen said. “The public demands the government punish criminals even more harshly, and give the death penalty even more.”

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