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China and the Death Penalty. Historical and Current Developments

Hausarbeit 2015 12 Seiten

Jura - Andere Rechtssysteme, Rechtsvergleichung


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Death Penalty in China and its Historical Evolution
2.1. Its Definition and Legal Foundation
2.2. The Evolution of the Death Penalty in China
2.3. The Strike Hard Campaign

3. The Reformation of the Supreme People’s Court
3.1. Returning to Centralization
3.2. Current Developments

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Kill fewer, kill carefully”[1]

According to the wishes of the Chinese Politburo, these two political guidelines are to be implemented in the future in order to simultaneously maintain harmony and order in China.

As with any passed laws – independent of country or government –, two questions arise here:

1. What did the prior evolution look like and can obligatory reform prevail?
2. Which competences are the judiciary’s responsibility and is there a guarantee that secure monitoring of law enforcement will be carried out?

I will pursue these questions in this article.

For this purpose, I will start by addressing the term “death penalty”, the legal provisions in China as well as its evolution with a particular focus on the “Strike Hard” Campaign and the decentralization process of the courts, which substantially contributed to the need for reform.

Furthermore, I will analyze the reformation of the Supreme People’s Court and assess the current state of the political guidelines being strived for and their actual executive implementation.

The conclusion should allow for an assessment of the reformation measures, if they have indeed been successful, if there is a need to catch up or if they failed entirely.

2.The Death Penalty in China and its Historical Evolution

2.1. Its Definition and Legal Foundation

The term death penalty describes the legally sanctioned killing of a human being. As a rule, the death penalty is preceded by court proceedings that result in the death sentence followed by the execution.[2]

The legal provision is recorded in §48 of the Penal Code of 1979 in the version of 1997 as well as in Article 208 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of the People’s Republic of China of 1979 in the version of 1996.

According to §48 I of the Penal Code, the death penalty is imposed in cases of “serious offenses”[3], which include, among others, murder (§232 of the Penal Code), high treason (§111 of the Penal Code) and rape (§236 of the Penal Code).[4]

The execution is legitimized and carried out by lethal injection or by firing squad according to Article 212 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.[5] In accordance with the decision of the Supreme People’s Court of February, 2009, execution by firing squad has been suspended until further notice as it has been deemed cruel and unusual.[6]

Furthermore, §48 II of the Penal Code stipulates that any death penalty verdicts must be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court before the execution can be carried out.[7]

Since 2008, Amnesty International has estimated the number of annual executions to be between 3,000 and 5,000. Due to the strict confidentiality concerning any documents pertaining to executions exerted by the Chinese government, detailed data are not published.

2.2.The Evolution of the Death Penalty in China

The death penalty has been a part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years.

The use of the death penalty was especially pronounced during the rule of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC), according to whom its legality was applied as an ideology with respect to governing through laws without morals.

Han Fei, the founder of this ideology describes it as follows:

„The ruler governs the rules and regulations and, by extension, life and death.“[8] The use of brutal punishment was to serve as a deterrent for the prevention of future crimes.

After the Chinese Communist Party seized power in 1949, different perceptions of the law and anti-crime campaigns began to emerge, which can be divided into five time periods.

1949-1956 (The Chinese Communist Party seizes power)

1956-1965 (The Hundred Flowers Movement/Great Leap Forward)

1966-1973 (Crime diminishes)

The 1980s 1rst Strike Hard Campaign

The 1990s 2nd Strike Hard Campaign

The two first periods are characterized by the explicit hunt for and neutralization of enemies of the state. While between 1949 and 1956, it was primarily counter-revolutionaries from the exiled Guomindang government who were regarded enemies of the state and executed, between 1956 and 1965, penal sanctions were executed against critics within the Communist Party as part of the “Anti-Rightist Movement“. Of the 513,000 criminal cases in the year 1950, only a mere 93,000 cases represent routine crimes while the rest refer to counter-revolutionaries.[9]

These so-called “enemies of the people“ were mostly intellectuals. In a speech from 1958, Mao Zedong said:

‟What is it that is so unusual about Emperor Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty? He only buried a mere 460 scholars alive while we buried 46,000 scholars alive. With regard to the oppression of counter-revolutionary scholars … we are miles ahead of the emperor.“[10]

The period of “diminishing crime“ from 1966 until the 80’s is characterized by a massive reduction in crime, which is recorded in a Chinese statistic as 421,000 cases in the year 1961 down to merely 160,000 cases in the year 1967.

This, however, is not to be traced back to a successful crime fighting strategy and deterrence measures. According to Prof. Dr. Dutton of Goldsmiths, University of London, these effects can be traced back to propaganda measures by the Chinese government:

“During this period, great claims were made that in a socialist society crime will diminish more and more. In order to substantiate the myth that socialism has a healing effect on crime, statistics were produced relaying the impression that China had the lowest arrest rate in 1967 As this was the time in which police, the prosecutor’s office, and the courts were “shattered”, these numbers are anything but exact.“[11].


[1] Ahl, 2015, p. 241

[2] Cf. Bertelsmann-Volkslexikon, p. 1739

[3] Heuser, 2002, p. 328

[4] Babock, 2011,

[5] Babock, 2011,

[6] Babock, 2011,

[7] Heuser, 2002, p. 328

[8] Fei, 1994, p. 491

[9] Dutton (China-Lexikon), 2008, p. 407

[10] Rummel: 2003, p. 84

[11] Dutton (China-Lexikon), 2008, p. 407


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
842 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität zu Köln – Institute of East Asian Studies Seminar / Modern China Studies
China Death Kill Dead Law Justice




Titel: China and the Death Penalty. Historical and Current Developments