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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.”

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