Politics of the Death Penalty in China

By Teng Biao, published: January 16, 2014



Throughout history, the death penalty has always been associated with famous people: from Socrates, Jesus, and Giordano Bruno to Joan of Arc, Madame Roland, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; from Bi Gan (比干), Yue Fei (岳飞) to Yuan Chonghuan (袁崇焕), Tan Sitong (谭嗣同), Yu Luoke (遇罗克), Lin Zhao (林昭); from Li Si (李斯), Shang Yang (商鞅), Charles I, Louis XVI, Maximilien de Robespierre to Hermann Göring, Adolf Eichmann, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and Saddam Hussein. In all of these cases, the death penalty had more to do with politics than with law–much more so. But this article focuses on the politics of the death penalty in contemporary China.

“The Rule of Psychosis”

With the Hunan tycoon Zeng Chengjie (曾成杰) and the Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), the manipulators behind the curtains were determined to end their lives. Similarly and without suspense, Gu Kailai (谷开来), daughter of a general, and Liu Zhijun (刘志军), the former railway minister, had their death sentences commuted.

The Xinhua headline after Liu Zhijun was sentenced read, “Trial of Liu Zhijun Demonstrates Respect for the Rule of Law.” A netizen made a lively retort, “I really think the headline means to say ‘the Rule of Psychosis.’”

Isn’t there a psychosis in our rule of law? Liu Zhijun, accepting bribes of more than 60 million yuan and owning 374 houses, gets a commuted death sentence while so many other “upright officials” are executed merely for amounts of several million or even hundreds of thousands of yuan. Then, among those whose corruption exceeds 100 million yuan, Jiang Renjie (姜人杰) and Xu Maiyong (许迈永), former vice-mayor of Suzhou and Hangzhou respectively, were both put to death, whereas Sinopec CEO and Party Secretary Chen Tonghai (陈同海) and the Party Secretary of Shanghai Electric Corporation Wang Chengming (王成明) were given commuted death sentences. The commuted death sentence of Wang Shouye (王守业), the Navy’s deputy commander, was changed to life imprisonment. Yu Zhendong (余振东) got 12 years in prison for 482 million yuan. Public Security Minister Tao Siju (陶驷驹) got immunity from prosecution and was merely placed on Party probation for embezzlement of 700 million. Isn’t the law psychotic?

It is said that, if the law was strictly enforced, not that many delegates could have taken part in the Party’s 18th Congress. Charged with the same crime of corruption, why do some people die and others live, and still others live quite comfortably and even join the ranks of party and state leaders? Getting arrested or not, getting a light sentence or not, being executed or not, there are absolutely no rules to follow. Those who steal a small amount are put to death while those who plunder become princes of the state. Isn’t the law psychotic?

Some officials are partial to corruption, bribery and women, others like to murder. For the same crime of murdering or hiring murderers to kill, Shi Honghai (史洪海), Deputy Director of the Civil Affairs Bureau in Shangshui County, Henan Province; Xuan Xiong (宣雄), Chair of the Ocean and Fishery Bureau in Suixi County, Guangdong; and Chen Jinyun (陈锦云), Chair of Anyi County in Jiangxi Province, received commuted death sentences, but Duan Yihe (段义和), Chair of the People’s Congress in Jinan Province; Lu Debin (吕德彬), Vice Governor of Henan Province; and Li Changhe (李长河), Pingdingshan Municipal Committee Secretary were immediately executed. For premeditated murder, Gu Kailai (谷开来) got a commuted death sentence, but street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰) of Shenyang City was executed for legitimate self-defense that caused the death of two Chenguans, or urban management enforcers. Cao Haixin (曹海鑫), a citizen in Henan province, was also sentenced to death and shot dead for legitimate self-defense. In addition, there have been a large number of innocent citizens who have committed no crimes yet have been tortured until they “confessed” and then wrongly executed, such as Teng Xingshan, Nie Shubin, Qoγsiletu, Gan Jinhua and others. Isn’t the law psychotic?

Far from it.

Psychosis is frequently manifested by brain dysfunction, distortion of reality, abnormal mental activities, and problems with memory, motivation and behavior. Does the death penalty in cases such as Liu Zhijun, Gu Kailai and Zeng Chengjie show that the Chinese legal system is psychotic? No way. Not only is it not psychotic, but makes precise judgment and shrewd calculation in complex situations.

The Death Penalty as a “Tool of Revolutionary Politics” 

To talk about the politics of the death penalty, let’s go back a little in time, to the “beginning of time” (as Hu Feng said), the founding year of the Communist reign. From the barrel of a gun, Mao Zedong and his comrades set up a communist totalitarian system with Chinese characteristics. Raising havoc on the masses in the name of mass movement is the core repertoire of totalitarian politics. “Politics takes command,” and everything else must be subordinate to the political struggle: whether it’s economics, religion, art and literature, childbirth or the law. Thus from the outset the death penalty was called the tool of revolutionary politics. Many were killed during the suppression of counterrevolutionaries and the massacre of the land owners; the indiscriminate extrajudicial killings were perpetrated after the public security apparatus was smashed up during the Cultural Revolution; and the death sentence was used gratuitously in the 1983 Strike Hard Campaign. In all these and more, the death penalty has always been a political tool, a move in the overall chess game, a sharp blade in the political arsenal, a political costume drama draped in the false clothes called justice.

At the start of the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and the CCP Central Committee gave a plethora of directives: “We expect to have a lot more suppression down the road. If we report each killing, there will be too much propaganda on killing people in the newspaper, and there may be a side effect.” “In cases where the blood debt is serious or when the masses demand that the death penalty be meted out, and when it is believed that the outcome of an execution would be more favorable than not executing, then the death sentence can be meted out.” After 1951 Mao clearly disliked the fact that overall in the country executions were carried out too few and too slowly. He repeatedly said he wanted “several mass killings.” In February 1951 in accordance with Mao’s urging, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee specifically discussed the execution to population ratio and “decided to increase the rate of killings from one per thousand persons to 1.5 per thousand and then reassess the situation later.” Mao clearly directed cadres in charge of Shanghai: “Shanghai is a large city of six million people, given that Shanghai has arrested more than 20,000 people and only killed over 200, I think that in 1951 you should kill at least 3,000 people who have committed major crimes such as bandit leaders, hardened bandits, standover merchants, spies and secret society bosses. And in the first half of the year at least 1,500 people should be killed.” The Public Security Ministry demanded a “ferocious operation and enormous firepower” to execute criminals.

So, all over China a secret competition got underway on execution statistics. Shanghai executed nearly 2,000 people in six months. Some cities executed hundreds of people in a day. Fujian Province executed 2.4 people in every thousand. The number of executions nationwide, on the CCP ‘s own statistics, the most conservative, were as many as 712,000. There was a blind fury of murdering, and countless people were unjustly, or mistakenly, murdered.

When the death penalty got seriously out of control, Mao opened his mouth again: “My thinking goes along these lines: it’s okay to exceed one in a thousand, but not by too much, …… 13,000 have already been killed in Guizhou province with a population of ten million, and the Provincial Party Committee requested to execute another 22,000 to 25,000. We can allow them to kill a little over another 10,000, sparing more than 10,000. This is already more than the ratio of two per thousand.”

The political nature of the death penalty is clearest in the public trials and sentencing of counterrevolutionaries and landlords: thousands of gawkers, mass denunciations, public frenzy, political propaganda, live radio broadcasts, street parades, and public executions. Add to this the declarations of political correctness, the competition to be further left, execution quotas, torture by lynch mobs, wrongful killing of innocent people, and this period in the history of the death penalty is one of lawless and immoral totalitarian brutality.

As for the death penalty for corrupt officials, Zhang Zishan (张子善) and Liu Qingshan (刘青山) were the best known of the Mao era. Together their corruption totaled 17.6 billion yuan, in current terms a piffling 1.71 million. Among today’s officials they would be honest and upright officials. But the lives of the party cadre bosses, just like the lives of other ranks of Chinese people, depend on the requirements of each political campaign. Mao said, “We must execute them in order to redeem the 20, 200, 2000, and 20000 cadres who have made mistakes to various degrees.” Actually this was like the Cao Cao story of “I want your head on a platter.” After the fanfare and publicity of the sacrifice their orphaned children would be given a monthly allowance.

As for the death penalty for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, it was by nature political. At the very forefront of the judgment handing down the death sentence for Lin Zhao (林昭) is one of the “Highest Directives” from Mao: “No matter where the counterrevolutionaries stir up trouble, they must be totally eliminated” and “There are certainly diehards who would rather meet their maker than change their minds, that will be fine and they will make no difference to the big picture.” The organ responsible for Lin Zhao’s verdict was “The Shanghai Military Control Commission of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Combining the Public Security Bureau, Prosecutor’s Office and Court.”

Liu Wenhui (刘文辉), Yu Luoke (遇罗克), Wang Shenyou (王申酉), Li Lian (黎莲), Li Jiulian (李九莲), Lu Hongen (陆洪恩) …… the list goes on and on.  As in the book “1984”, the death penalty is the destiny of those who resist. But George Orwell never imagined billing families for the cost of bullets, throat cutting, corpse mutilation, live organ harvesting, cannibalism and the like.

As soon as Mao died, the Gang of Four and others were secretly arrested by the upper echelon in a virtual palace coup (Chen Yun said: “This is the last; no more.”), but they were put on trial with a semblance of judicial process. Wheeling and dealing happened outside the courtroom, but they went through the motions of a judicial process: the core issue was how to pin the crimes of Mao and the Party Central Committee on a tiny assortment of conspirators. The Party must be right at all time, so those who had committed the errors had to be, by default, counterrevolutionaries who had enmeshed themselves within Party structures. Thus every mistake the party made actually presented itself with a glorious opportunity to strive for a correction and a return to the true path. Now we seem to have finally figured out why the party is so much into making mistakes. The commuted death sentences of Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao in the end are probably the best known examples of Chinese Communist Party officials receiving such sentences. Unlike the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, this political trial painstakingly fashioned itself in many more of the trappings of judicial process. The slow process of “legalization” of political cases in China thus began.

Next we move onto “Strike Hard” (严打) in the 1980s.  The 1983 crackdown saw 24,000 people executed by firing squads over a period of eight months. The Public Security Bureau, Procuratorate and Court coordinated to conduct the cases. It was a bloodbath of terror with confessions under torture followed by “swift and severe justice.” People were tied with ropes and paraded through the streets with placards hanging from their necks before public executions. To meet targets there were huge numbers executed for crimes which did not deserve the death sentence or for minor offences; everywhere there were cases of completely innocent people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. During the crackdown, Zhu Guohua (朱国华), the grandson of Zhu De (朱德), was shot by firing squad for the crime of hooliganism. The directive handed down by Comrade Kang Keqing read: “A prince is punished for a crime just like anyone else!” Zhu’s grandson’s so-called crime of hooliganism was nothing more than a little excess while picking up girls. This is just one example of countless cases of unjust sentencing for common or garden variety thefts, robberies or touching up women. But it was probably the last time a descendant of a founding ruler was sentenced to death. In terms of mass mobilization, the “friend/foe” narrative, the atmosphere of terror, the disregard for procedures, and the extent of human rights violations, the 1983 “Strike Hard” campaign was a smaller version of the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. After this there were many similar campaigns creating havoc throughout the nation where politics steamrolled the administration of justice. The most terrifying was the suppression of the Falun Gong movement after 1999; but geographically, the most bloodthirsty has been the “Strike Black” campaign by Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun.

Politics of Anti-corruption

If the death penalty during the Land Reform campaign, the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, and the Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns typified the manic methods of pathological bloodthirsty frenzy in an early stage of totalitarianism, then the “Strike Hard” campaign demonstrated pathological convulsion to rule the country through political campaigns in the late stage of totalitarianism. The later trials (or the absence of trials) and the death penalty (or the absence of the death penalty) for corrupt officials or greedy tycoons involved precise calculation by the new totalitarian system disguised in a socialist pseudo market economy; they involved punctilious judgments, shrewd dealings, and conscientious performances.

With Mao’s death the extreme “politics in command” reached its end. But this certainly did not mean that some form of political centralism was no longer practiced. The bloody class struggle gave place to the bureaucratic culture of economic plunder and bureaucratic infighting which hid beneath a transformation strategy of “let a few bigwigs get rich first.” At least on the surface, the country continued its process of governance under a legal framework. Although it was a million miles away from the rule of law, small steps towards a new governance model included: the restoration of the systems of public security, procuratorate, court and lawyers; the introduction of the Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law; Document Number 64 of 1979 abolishing the system of direct review and approval of criminal cases by Party Committees; the trial of the Gang of Four; and the 1982 Constitution. In the end, apart from intermittent episodes of crackdown, there was a need after all for legalized routine governance to replace havoc-raising succession of political campaigns.

The powerful and their friends and families savored the fruits not only of the policy of reform and opening up but also of the lack of democracy and rule of law. The fruits include the dual-track system [of social security and benefits], bureaucratic profiteering, the use of public office for private gain, government-run media, and party control of justice. Corruption immediately became a major issue which the rulers had to face. Corralling corruption was a necessity, otherwise the Great, the Glorious and the Correct (伟光正) image of the party would be tarnished and discontent would boil over and threaten the regime.

But allowing corruption was even more of a necessity: Without corruption who would want to work for the party? In a village in Shanxi, the Party Secretary Wang Genping (王根平) spoke the truth: “What’s the point of being an official if I’m not corrupt!?” After the shootings of 1989 it was even more so. Opening fire on citizens and students on June 4th that year was actually akin to administering the death penalty in a state of emergency: Soldiers took the place of the court marshals; the square at night took the place of an execution ground in daylight; military orders took the place of written judicial processes and verdicts; expanding bullets and tanks took the place of ordinary bullets; random victims took the place of death row prisoners. As for the myth about the effectiveness of the politics of terror (“murdering 200,000 people would ensure two decades of stability”), it’s an expanded version of the myth that the death penalty is a deterrent.

A certain general said [online]: “There’s only one thing in the world that can defeat the Chinese army, and that’s corruption.” A reader retorted in the comment section: “There’s only one thing in the world that can safeguard such corruption, and that’s the Chinese army.” Corruption has become commonplace. In a system without formation of other political parties to contend for power, without separation of powers, without checks and balances, without an independent judiciary, without independent media, and without elected officials, to assume corruption can be curbed is to assume that every man under the sun would be the legendary Zhan Huo (柳下惠) of eminent virtue. Honest officials in China must be the crème de la crème. With few exceptions, the likelihood and extent of corruption is in direct proportion to the power of an official.

Officials benefit from being corrupt; the party benefits from “anti-corruption” campaigns. There are at least four benefits: buying popular support; giving jobs to one’s cronies; creating fear by taking revenge on your opponents; and, maintaining the same system in which corruption continues. Corruption is institutionalized, but fighting corruption is a long, long way from being institutionalized. At most it’s “semi-institutionalized.” The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the CCDI Supervision Department, the Anti-graft and Anti-Bribery Bureau of the Supreme Procuratorate, and the “double designations (双规)” system for interrogating party officials, all operate outside the legal system. But more importantly, whether you are arrested or not, sentenced or not, die or not, seems totally a matter of whim without rules.

It seems there are no rules, but in fact it isn’t so. The likelihood and severity of being punished for corruption is inversely proportional to the real power of an official or his backers. Higher ranking officials are less likely to be sentenced to death. No one is going to believe that a system like China’s would constrain corruption rather than promote it. Institutionalization of corruption and the lack of institutionalization for fighting corruption are two important, complementary prerequisites for a system where officials obey their superiors and remain loyal to the Party.

Officials who come a cropper have basically bitten the dust in a political struggle. Behind every corruption trial there is a series of deals. It’s like a food chain in which bribes are both offered and accepted; the more complex the network the more benefits there are, the more secure you are. Once caught, if you confess too little, you would not have earned enough merit to have your sentence reduced; but if you confess too much, those above you will exterminate you to stop you from implicating them. It’s sure to go pear-shaped if you confess what you shouldn’t have confessed and didn’t confess what you should have confessed.

There is a skit that goes like this: A provincial governor was given a suspended death sentence for corruption. His son visited him in prison and said he couldn’t find work after graduating from university. The governor said, “I will write a note [to someone for help.” The son said, “Do you still have pull in here?” The governor said, “Of course I do. I can send anyone to jail if I want to!” As Bo Xilai revealed in the trial of the century, the CCDI told him two stories: the vice governor of Anhui province Wang Huaizhong (王怀忠) was executed for accepting bribes of five million but the Railway Minister Liu Zhijun got a commuted death sentence for bribes of sixty million. The former refused to admit his guilt while the latter read in court a tearful repentance, thanking the Party for nurturing him. “I am the organization’s man when I live and the organization’s ghost when I die.”

One of the secrets that enables a post-totalitarian system to continue to operate is using the death penalty in anti-corruption to enforce the loyalty (obedience) of officials and using the whole apparatus of the penal system, including the death penalty, and the spoil-sharing system to obtain the loyalty (obedience) of the masses. Totalitarian and post-totalitarian politics need the death penalty, the way they need enemies. Zeng Chengjie and Fan Qihang (樊奇杭) are dead; Wu Ying (吴英) escaped death narrowly. Businessmen seem to be frisking and frolicking but, in reality, they are walzting themselves bound and trussed into the arms of the authorities.” Powerless ordinary people —or Shitizens– are in even more precarious circumstances. No need to even use the public security organs; a chengguan, a police assistant, or even a day laborer can snuff out your life in a second and will snatch your dead body too.

Live or Die, Depending on Who You Are

For those who were once powerful, a commuted death sentence is a wonderful thing: in due time it will be changed to life in prison, life in prison will be changed to a set term, a set term will be reduced, and before long you’re out on bail, probation or medical parole. A few more years later a perfectly good man will be reinvented. Those who don’t come out are special prisoners, and can hold their heads higher than the others despite their broken lives. Compared to worthless shitizens, their lives are a million times richer and more comfortable.

It seems that a commuted death penalty has become the royal reserve punishment for large-scale corrupt officials and tycoons. A partial list of comrades given a commuted death sentence (in no particular order) include:
Li Jizhou (李纪周) – Vice Minister of Public Security;
Li Jiating (李嘉廷) – Governor of Yunnan Province;
Wang Zhaoyao (王昭耀) – Deputy party secretary of Anhui Province;
Cong Fukui (从福奎) – Executive Vice Governor of Hebei Province;
Chen Shaoji  (陈绍基)- Secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Political and Judicial Committee;
Zheng Shaodong (郑少东) – Assistant to the Minister for Public Security;
Xu Zongheng (许宗衡) – Mayor of Shenzhen;
Wang Huayuan (王华元) – Secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Discipline and Inspection Commission;
Mi Fengjun (米凤君) – Deputy Director of Jilin Province People’s Congress Standing Committee;
Guo Shenggui (郭生贵) – Judge of the Xicheng District Court, Beijing;
Li Baojin (李宝金) – Director of Tianjin People’s Procuratorate;
Wang Yi (王益) – Vice President of the National Development Bank

Getting a commuted death sentence has less and less to do with the size of the bribes. “People or Monsters“(《人妖之间》), Liu Bingyan’s investigative report about Wang Shouxin (王守信), describes how she was executed in 1980 for corruption because of “a personal slush fund of nearly 500,000 yuan in cash.” This was a travesty of justice like the Gourd Temple case in the Dream of the Red Chamber. Liu Yiping (刘伊平), a ticket seller at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, embezzled 550,000. The money was recovered and he wrote a long and full confession, but the political necessities of “Strike Hard” saw his execution in 1991 at only 23 years of age. These days, to be sentenced to death for these amounts is almost unheard of. The policy of using death penalty with caution has been carried out in corruption cases first and most.

In ancient times there was “immunity for Ministers and above.” The so-called “Ba Yi” (八议), a privilege of legal immunity for the officials and aristocrats, applied to crimes committed by the Emperor’s relatives and old friends and Ministers who had given meritorious service, nobility of the former dynasty and their descendants, etc. Ordinary judicial organs had no power to put them on trial. These days the word on the street that “members of the Politburo Standing Committee can’t be convicted and given a sentence and Politburo members can’t be sentenced to death” is not utterly baseless. After the trial of the Gang of Four, no current or former members of the Standing Committee were convicted. It remains to be seen whether Zhou Yongkang will break this convention. And only three Politburo members have been convicted, and they were Chen Xitong (陈希同), Chen Liangyu (陈良宇) and Bo Xilai (薄熙来).

Officials have made fortunes profiteering and those with a lot of nerve and with patrons have become central or local leaders. Before 1997 when the death penalty was abolished for ordinary theft, there were many cases of people being executed by firing squad for stealing merely tens of thousands of yuan. In 1991, Wenzhou businesswoman Zheng Lefen (郑乐芬) was the last person to be executed by firing squad for the crime of “illegal speculation and profiteering.” Before that, many had been sentenced to death for speculation (China’s death penalty data is not public, so I have to use the vague formulation of “many”). In fact, these people were pioneers in the market economy. The death penalty as it is applied to the common man has really been gratuitous and arbitrary. But the logic is the same as ever: it’s certainly not that the law is psychotic: all the death penalty policies and practices are in line with the core logic of the political rule.

The Party Is the Judge 

In the Liu Zhijun case in 2013, the prosecution called for leniency because of his full confession and because the losses had essentially been recovered; the defense lawyer said that Liu’s contribution to the economy was obvious to everyone; and the defendant tearfully thanked the authorities handling the case for teaching him his errors. In other words, the prosecution did the job of the defense, the defense did the job of a government mouthpiece, the judge did the job of a film director, and the defendant did the job of the Propaganda Department. This was all because the Party was doing the job of the judge.

In the Gu Kailai case in 2012, she appeared in court without handcuffs or leg irons, without an orange detention center vest, without being deprived of the right to defense, and of course without having been tortured into making a confession. Pro-government professors and government officials who were invited to the sentencing of Gu, said of the verdict that “the judicial organs adhered to the spirit of handling cases in accordance with the law” and that they had “carried out the principle of the rule of law which was that every single person was equal in the eyes of the law.” A Hefei Court news spokesman said that Gu Kailai undoubtedly had a mental disorder which weakened her self-control as she perpetrated the murder. Gu said: “I feel the decision is fair, it fully reflects the special respect our courts have for the law and for the facts on the ground. It specially shows their respect for life.”

Of course it is special. A special stay of execution for a special you.

On June 29, 2010, my client, Shenyang hawker Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰) appeared in court charged with murder. He had been forced to defend himself against two violent chengguan. He was manhandled into Liaoning Province Superior Court by two menacing and intimidating court police. He was wearing the yellow vest of the Shenhe District Detention Center, handcuffed and shackled. Both Xia Junfeng’s speech and my speech were constantly interrupted.

On December 7, 2010, my client Leng Guoquan (冷国权), a businessman from Dandong (辽宁丹东), was sentenced to death in the second trial in Dandong. Both the defendant and I were interrupted countless times while trying to speak. Leng Guoquan had many documents providing irrefutable evidence that he had been subject to brutal and inhuman torture: he had been “strung up and beaten, electrocuted with a cattle prod, tortured over a fire, punched and kicked, and continuously deprived of sleep.” But the court refused to initiate the procedure for excluding illegal evidence. The overwhelming majority of death penalty cases in which I have been the defense counsel have involved confessions extracted by torture.

On December 16, 2009, the Guangdong Provincial Higher People’s Court sentenced Gan Jinhua (甘锦华) to death. This was a case where a confession had been extracted under torture, the whereabouts of the murder weapon was unknown, and there were 22 major issues of doubt in the prosecution’s evidence. On the second day of Gu Kailai’s trial, on August 10, 2012, Gan Jinhua was secretly executed, without notice to family members or his lawyers.

In October, 2006, the Ankang Municipal Intermediate Court in Shaanxi Province (陕西安康) declared: “Qiu Xinghua (邱兴华) murdered deliberately and with clear purpose, was lucid in answering questions, was clear thinking, and showed no abnormal mental performance.” He was executed immediately. In fact, Qiu Xinghua’s mother and several close relatives suffer from mental illness. His neighbors also testified that Qiu Xinghua often behaved erratically. The defense counsel, psychiatrists, many lawyers, and renowned scholars all agreed that Qiu Xinghua had severe mental illness. They strongly urged that Qiu Xinghua undergo a forensic psychiatric examination, but the court refused.

Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death. He was a laid-off worker who became a street vendor. His father was a street sweeper, not a General. His spouse was also a laid-off worker who became a street vendor, not a Politburo member. Nie Shubin (聂树斌), Gan Jinhua, Qoγsiletu (胡格吉勒图), Teng Xingshan (滕兴善), Cao Haixin (曹海鑫) and Qiu Xinghua were all executed, and all of them farmers or herders, members of the lowest class of the society.

Yao Jiaxin (药家鑫), who was portrayed as a rich brat descendant of a government official, was executed. Triad leader Liu Yong (刘涌) was executed. Non-triad member Fan Qihang (樊奇航) was executed. Wealthy and healthy, Yuan Baojing (袁宝璟) was executed.  Poor and sick, Qiu Xinghua was executed. Poor and innocent of murder, Gan Jinhua was executed. Rich and innocent of murder, Zeng Chengjie (曾成杰) was executed. Rich and murderous, healthy and treacherous, Gu Kailai was given a reprieve. I am opposed to the death penalty. Couldn’t all future cases be like that of Gu Kailai and Liu Zhijun? Couldn’t courts across China use a commuted death penalty in the place of all death penalties?

The hearing of Chen Liangyu’s case was “rehearsed for six months” by prosecutors and the court. “From the coordination and process on day one of the hearing, one senses that the pre-trial rehearsal was extremely tightly organized and the entire process was choreographed to perfection. It was said that there was even a strict timetable for when Chen could have a break or use the bathroom,” according to The Economic Observer. We saw the same in the vast majority of “special” death penalty trials for high-ranking corrupt officials or tycoons. In these trials, from venue to the presiding judge to the assignment of counsel, everything is meticulously selected; court observers are essentially hand-picked; the verdict is well discussed and decided beforehand; and all this has little to do with the judge. Much more is hidden than on display and more questions are left unanswered than resolved in these trials.

Criminal trials are a sporting arena, and Chinese judges have long ago reduced themselves from referees to a member of one of the competing teams. They stand side by side with the investigative organs and procuratorate, reaching secret agreements about how to deal with the defense — the criminal defendant and his lawyers. In some high publicity cases involving high-ranking officials, the Public Security Bureau, the Procuratorate and the court, together with the defendant, actually form a single team, sending a dazzling flurry of combination punches to their weakened opponent – Truth and Justice – in perfect coordination and understanding.

In the politicized judicial environment guided by the “Political and Judicial Committee,” the “Three Supremes (三个至上),” “Homicide Cases Must Be Solved,” and the “Mass Line (群众路线),” there are almost no “normal” death penalty cases. There are few death penalty cases where the Party and the Political and Judicial Committee do not interfere:the Yang Jia case (杨佳), the Chengde case where innocent men were sentenced to death, the She Xianglin case (佘祥林), the Teng Xingshan case, the Nian Bin (念斌) case in Fujian Province, cases involving terrorism, cases involving foreigners, and cases involving Police Officers. Once the death penalty becomes a political bargaining chip, death penalty trials can only result in a mad scramble to ring down the curtain, albeit with the utmost planning and meticulous rehearsal of political theatre.

September, 2013

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪) is a legal scholar, human rights lawyer, a pioneer of China’s rights movement, and one of the founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng公盟) that offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. Dr. Teng Biao writes extensively about the death penalty in China. He is the recipient of several international human rights prizes.

Read more by Teng Biao:

The Confessions of a Reactionary

Changing China through Mandarin

To Remember Is to Resist


(Translated by Kevin McCready)

Chinese original (link to be provided)

9 responses to “Politics of the Death Penalty in China”

  1. nirevess says:

    This article has many interesting historical points concerning the 1950’s and ’60s and quite a few direct Mao quotations concerning the killings policy. It would be very helpful if those quotations were referenced (date, source, and possibly a link), even post festum.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      I will retrieve the original Chinese, hopefully soon, to provide references for these Mao Zedong quotations. For translation, Teng Biao provided me with a slightly trimmed version without references.

  2. screen777 says:

    Is there a link to the Chinese version? I am currently writing my thesis on the topic of media influence on criminal cases and would prefer quoting from the original text.

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