For the first time in 30 years, China's top legislature proposed this week to reduce the number of crimes punishable by execution. The proposal, albeit largely symbolic, has drawn renewed attention to China's controversial death-penalty policy, under which 68 crimes are punishable by death and more executions take place each year than in the rest of the world combined.
The state media has reported that 13 nonviolent economic crimes ranging from smuggling relics and endangered animals to faking VAT receipts have been dropped in a pending amendment to China's capital-punishment law. Convicts above the age of 75 will also be eligible for the exemption. If passed, the revised law could slash the total number of capital crimes in the country by up to 20%.
Experts caution that the measure might turn out to be a much smaller reform than it appears. "The crimes targeted in the revision are not being used very often," says Joshua Rosenzweig, senior research manager at the Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit human-rights group based in San Francisco. Liu Renwen, a professor of criminal law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, echoes the point. "One of the 13 capital crimes called 'imparting criminal methods' has not been used since 1997," Liu says. "Death penalties for stealing relics and fossils are also extremely rare."
But even if the 13 crimes in the amended law account for just 1% or 2% of China's total executions, the reduction in sheer numbers could still be significant. China has come under heavy criticism for the number of criminals it puts on death row every year, the number of crimes punished by death penalty and the opaqueness of its legal system. While Beijing remains secretive about the number of executions it metes out, human-rights organizations estimate the figure to be in the thousands. In December 2009, China executed a British man named Akmal Shaikh by lethal injection after finding him guilty of drug trafficking, an act that was widely condemned by the international community.
This week's move suggests Beijing may be seeking to soften its image. "I do think that there is an intention [among Chinese leaders] to eventually move into that direction [of abolishing the death penalty]," says Rosenzweig. "This is another one of those incremental steps along the way."
That process, however, will be slow. Experts say it's hard to speculate when this week's amendment could be passed at such an early stage, though since it has made it this far in the official process, it is unlikely to be rejected. Before taking effect, most draft laws in China need to be read at three separate sessions of the National People's Congress, which convenes once every two months.
Once adopted, the amended law will do more for Beijing than boost its humanitarian standing. It will also help China gain more control over its many economic fugitives who have fled to foreign countries, says Liu, by clearing a major legal barrier to their extradition back to China. Lai Changxing, a Vancouver-based Chinese businessman accused of smuggling goods and evading $3.6 billion in taxes back home, has been living in Canada since fleeing China in 1999, despite Beijing's efforts to have him repatriated. The Canadian government has rejected the requests, partially on grounds of Canadian law that forbids extraditing suspects who might risk a death sentence. "If we dropped the death penalty for smuggling altogether," Liu says, "Lai's case could have been easier."