Sunday, July 14, 2013

Corruption and the death penalty in China

Last week China’s new anti-corruption campaign made an illustrious victim. Liu Zhijun, who used to be China’s Minister of Railways, received that strange Chinese form of sentencing which exists nowhere else in the world: the death penalty with a two year reprieve. When this happens, the sentence is usually commuted to life imprisonment after two years.

The court found that during the course of his career Liu Zhijun helped eleven people to receive promotions and contracts, and got a total of 64.6 million Yuan (about 10 million dollars) in bribes from them in return. As well as the death penalty with a two year reprieve, Liu was also given a 10 year prison sentence for abuse of power, and his personal property was confiscated.

In China corruption is punishable with the death penalty if the sums acquired illegally go beyond a certain threshold, which in this case was abundantly passed. However, in view of the fact that Liu readily confessed to all of his crimes including ones which were unknown to investigators, and that most of the stolen assets were recovered, it was decided to be “lenient” and hand down a suspended death sentence.

What I find rather unsettling is the reaction of many ordinary Chinese to the case, which I gathered both from my discussions with colleagues and acquaintances and from comments I have seen on Weibo (China’s Facebook). Basically, most people’s feeling seems to be that the guy should have gotten the death penalty without a reprieve, and been executed for real.

This was certainly the opinion of two of my Chinese colleagues with whom I discussed the issue on the bus yesterday. They claimed that corrupt officials who get a two year reprieve sentence end up being released after ten or fifteen years, after which they can take off abroad and enjoy their wealth. When I argued that his property had been confiscated, they claimed that he was bound to have more money which hadn’t been found, and had probably already bought a house in the US.

This is an argument which I have already heard before. Corrupt officials who are condemned to death with a two year reprieve are then released after “only” a decade or so, and can enjoy their ill-gotten gains. It’s almost as if they weren’t punished at all! When I told my two colleagues that in a European country the guy might have received no more than ten years in prison from the start, they were very surprised (even though one of them actually studied in France for some years).

When I said that I thought a decade in prison is a heavy enough punishment for corruption, they were disdainful. They pointed out that Liu Zhijun’s crimes might have been responsible for the terrible Wenzhou high speed railway crash in 2011, where people lost their lives. I argued that killing people indirectly is not the same as killing them directly, but this argument didn’t go very far with them. Other Chinese I have spoken with have expressed similar views.

Then on Weibo minor internet celebrity Yanhua Meimei, better known for the sexy photos of herself which she often releases online, posted a comment on the case. It reads: “In the end Liu Zhijun had his wish not to die fulfilled. The former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was condemned in the fist instance to the death penalty with a two year reprieve, and not all his personal assets have been recovered. The death penalty with a reprieve is perhaps the form of death penalty which most deceives the ordinary people in the whole world.” Under her post there were dozens of comments, many (but not all) supporting her view that the guy should have gotten the actual death penalty.

It is common for ordinary Chinese people to feel annoyed if important corrupt officials who are caught don’t face the death penalty. This may seem extreme and cruel in European eyes, but it must be remembered that this is a country where a number of crimes are punishable with the death penalty, including serious cases of drug trafficking.

If powerful officials don’t get executed even though the amount they have stolen is big enough to warrant the death penalty, then people feel that they are getting off the hook just because they are government officials, in contrast to ordinary people and even corrupt businessmen.  After all when some poor sod with no connections gets caught trafficking drugs to make enough money for their father’s operation, they will get the death penalty with no reprieve. Why should it be different for important politicians, goes the reasoning?

This issue came to the fore again last Friday, when Zeng Chengjie, a pyramid schemer from Hunan province, was executed for his frauds. The execution took place without his family even being notified of the exact date or getting to see him for the last time, something which is no longer legal in theory. Zeng Chengjie's daughter opened a Weibo account to protest his sentence, and then dramatically announced on Friday that she had just found out that her father had been executed.

In the days before the execution, she had often protested that while Liu Zhijun got a suspended death sentence "because he is a government official", her poor father got an actual death sentence for being just a businessman. Her Weibo account has not been censored or deleted up to now, perhaps because of the fuss it generated.

Personally I am and remain opposed to the death penalty for any kind of crime. I don’t think it can be justified because “there are too many people in China, and we have to keep order”, like many Chinese would tell you. I realize that the death penalty is being implemented less and less in China, and that the way of implementing it has also become more civilized (although the way this Zeng Chengjie was put to death seems like a real step backwards). I am also quite aware that public hangings used to take place in my own country not that long ago.

All the same, the ease with which much of the Chinese public can demand the death penalty for people who haven’t even murdered anyone still unsettles me. I suppose this is the result of living in a country where it is a normal form of sentencing, and of anger at the unfairness when only non-influential people get executed. I hope that one day it dawns on the Chinese public that abolishing the death penalty all round is the real solution, and that it is neither a necessary nor a humane way of dealing with crime.


Anna Lowenstein said...

Public hangings in your own country? That was at least 200 years ago! But it's true that non-public hangings still took place until 50 years ago.

Ji Xiang said...

Well, in Chinese terms 200 years is not such a long time.

Jonathan said...

Its not that long in Italian terms either.

Scottie said...

Whether abolishing death penalty necessarily means "progress" or "civilized" is still debatable. Certainly America as the most powerful country still has the death penalty. As for public executions in Europe, in France, at least, the last time it took place was in 1939, a while back, but definitely not 200 years ago.

Ji Xiang said...

@Scottie: Yes you're right, the last public execution in France took place in 1939. In Britain this practice was stopped in the the 1860s, about 150 years ago. On the other hand, the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 16 in 1908, and to 18 only in 1933, which now seems unbelievable.

As for your other point, I personally do believe that abolishing the death penalty is a sign of progress. I think it is not in doubt that the more progressive countries are, the less likely they are to have the death penalty.

Over the last few centuries there has also been a clear progress all over the world towards less extreme forms of punishment for crimes of all sorts, something which is also true for China. After all, until 1905 people in China could still be executed with the dreadful method of slow slicing (凌迟), whereas nowadays they are at least executed humanely.

The US is pretty much the only Western country left to make use of the death penalty, and even in the US, it is only some states which practice it, and they tend to be located in the least progressive areas of the country.

And then again, we are talking about the only country in the world where ordinary citizens are allowed to buy and possess firearms, so even though it may be "the most powerful country in the world", when it comes to this sort of issue I think it is actually rather backward.

Ji Xiang said...

According to wikipedia, this is the list of the ten countries which executed the most people in 2011, with the number of executions next to the name of the country:

People's Republic of China: thousands of executions, maybe over 4000

Iran: 360+

Saudi Arabia: 82+

Iraq: 68+

United States: 43+

Yemen: 41+

North Korea: 30+

Somalia: 10

Sudan: 7+

Bangladesh: 5+

I think the United States should be ashamed of even being in such a list. And as for China, I know they have a bigger population than all those other countries put together, but still, do they really need to execute so many more people than everyone else?

Scottie said...


Well, I think as long as it is done humanely, death penalty itself is not utterly uncivilized. Punishments like slow slicing, which is used for major crimes and first appeared at around the 10th century AD, is certainly not humane. That’s why many Chinese from the 10th century onward, especially those from the literati class, opposed it. As you pointed out, it was finally abolished in 1905. People of course have been protesting against the death penalty as well, but I think as long as it is used sparingly and administered with the greatest care in a humane way, it should be okay.

As for America, I think it is definitely one of the most civilized countries in the world, despite some of its flaws. Regarding private ownership of guns, Switzerland also allows its citizens to carry firearms, it’s just that in the US it’s a more serious issue. As for China, while some progress have been made, it still needs major, vast improvement, pretty much in all areas.

Ji Xiang said...

Well, by modern standards the death penalty is not being used "sparingly" in China, since it is sometimes administered for drug trafficking, serious corruption and other offenses which do not even involve killing anyone.

I would think that using the death penalty sparingly would mean enacting it only for really heinous murder cases, for instance serial killers etc....

I recognize that in China there has been constant progress on this issue over the last decades, as I said in the article. I hope this continues.

If some Chinese literati were already opposing slow slicing in the 10th century then that is very admirable, since in those days such punishments were common worldwide.

About the US, I think that European countries are far more advanced than the US in these areas. Switzerland does allow its citizens to carry firearms, but they seem to be able to do this without constant massacres being carried out by madmen in public places. It makes you wonder why.

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