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RIGHTS: As Taiwan Debates Death Penalty, China Stays Mum on It

Antoaneta Becker

BEIJING, Apr 6 2010 (IPS) - Just as the death penalty is becoming a hot public issue in Taiwan, here in China it remains so much a matter of state secrecy that the numbers of those executed are kept under wraps from the public.

In Taiwan, the justice minister’s resignation in March over her refusal to break the moratorium on the death penalty is triggering debate about its future there.

Amnesty International has urged democratic Taiwan to follow other Chinese territories like Hong Kong and Macau that have formally abolished the death penalty.

But China, the world leader in judicial killings, refuses to make public the number of people it executes every year. “Thousands of executions” were likely to have taken place last year in China, says Amnesty lnternational.

As part of China’s public relations campaign ahead of the 2008 Olympics, the Supreme Court in 2007 took back its power of final approval on the death penalty, which had been relinquished to provincial high courts in the crime- fighting campaigns of the 1980s.

Done under the Communist Party slogan ‘Execute less, execute with caution’, the change has reportedly led to a decline in the number of people put to death, say China’s legal authorities.

“If this is true, why won’t they tell the world how many people the state put to death?” Amnesty International interim secretary general Claudio Cordone asked on the eve of last week’s release of the organisation’s overview of the death penalty for 2009.

The deterioration in social order and stability in China may have led authorities to regress on pledges to reform the death penalty system. Last year there were 100,000 cases of unrest or “mass incidents”, officials term them, due to grievances like corruption and land abuses.

Beijing’s anxiety over political order was apparent in March when it asked the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress or Parliament to approve a 514 billion yuan (75.4 billion U.S. dollar) public security budget for 2010, an 8.9 percent increase over last year’s.

“The debate over the future of death penalty in China continues. But I don’t think we can speak of its abolition any time soon, especially now that (the country’s) leaders are so worried about social stability,” said Gao Heng, research fellow with the Institute for National Strategy under the China Association for Science and Technology.

But “we have to be asking ourselves – are we, the Chinese so bad, that we need to make legitimate slaughter the norm for maintaining our social peace and ensuring the coexistence of all social groups,” Yang Hengjun, a blogger and campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty, told the U.N. Fourth World Congress against the Death Penalty in Geneva in February. China did not send an official representative to that forum.

The focus on social unrest brings back memories of the ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns against crime in the 1980s, initiated by China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to counter the perceived bad impact of the country’s opening to the outside world. Legal institutions had to speed up normal procedures to meet quotas for solved crimes.

Since the first ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in 1983, the number of crimes that merit the death penalty has more than doubled from 32 to 68. This includes non-violent crimes like smuggling, tax evasion and counterfeiting.

In its drive to curtail crime, Beijing has sentenced several foreigners to death for drug smuggling.

In its first use of the death penalty on a Japanese national since Tokyo and Beijing normalised ties in 1972, China on Apr. 6 executed a convicted Japanese drug smuggler. Beijing has informed Tokyo that it plans to put three more to death this week.

In December, British national Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old father of three, was also executed for drug smuggling.

Beijing has defended these by stressing the “importance of controlling drug smuggling in China” and Internet forums have been abuzz with commentaries about them.

Invoking the Opium Wars fought by Britain and the Chinese empire in the 19th century, China’s defeat and its ‘100 years of humiliation’ at the hands of foreign powers, one post on the website said: “Today when a British drug dealer violates the laws of our land, we can openly and rightfully punish him without any mercy. We don’t need to follow the orders of others any more. This shows that the consequence of provoking China is serious.”

China contends that the death penalty has broad popular support and is rooted in tradition, including a belief in retribution.

But the death penalty was abolished for a time during the reign of Tai Zong emperor (627-650), one of the Tang dynasty’s most admired rulers. “The Tang Dynasty was a period of prosperity and great stability,” said Gao Heng. “Tang rulers could afford to suspend the use of death punishment.”

Yang, who conducted an online survey about Chinese perceptions of the death penalty, found that 53 percent of the surveyed netizens supported its abolition – though many attached conditions to it – and only 25 percent opposed it.

“We have to remember that China’s Internet community is generally well educated, with better access to information and greater civic awareness,” Yang said. “While the survey is not at all comprehensive, it does show that with the popularisation of Internet, there is more hope for abolition.” Public perceptions are key too in Taiwan’s debate, but in that case they are working against the continuation of the four-year de facto moratorium on executions on the island.

The justice ministry is preparing to abolish the death penalty next year, but Taiwan’s leaders say “public feelings” now run 80 percent against its abolition.

“We want Taiwan to keep going in the right direction, especially since now is a critical juncture for death penalty abolition in the region,” Amnesty’s Asia- Pacific deputy director Roseann Rife told ‘Taiwan News’.

“Instead of lowering Taiwan’s standards to those of China, why not work to raise China’s standards?” she asked.

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