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The Contradictions of Chinese Capital Punishment


This project uncovers the causes and consequences of China’s death penalty reform in the 21st century. China is the world’s leading executioner state. Yet in recent years China has also become a leading death penalty reformer. This reform took place through the courts. In 2007 the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) reinstituted a process of central review and approval of death sentences that reportedly led to a significant decline in death sentences nationwide.

Why did a one-party authoritarian state empower the judiciary to restrain state punishment? And what were the political effects of this shift? I adopt an explicitly comparative method to answer these questions. Throughout, I consider China’s court-focused death penalty reform in light of another country that also used the judiciary to regulate capital punishment: the United States. My findings rest on a diverse body of evidence including case verdicts, statutes and Chinese-language scholarship. The centerpiece of my materials is an original data set of more than 70 interviews I conducted with death penalty stakeholders in China.

The first part of the project explains the causes of reform in China. In Chapters One and Two I examine the politics and functions of capital punishment administration in late Imperial China and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). I show that in late Imperial China the administration of capital punishment was tightly controlled through an extensive process of hierarchical review with relatively few executions. I argue that this process served a crucial and under-recognized auditing function in helping the state regulate hazards from its own local bureaucracy. In Chapter Two I show that by contrast the political environment of the early PRC produced a heavy reliance on capital punishment with little central oversight. I contend that the implementation of death penalty review in the 21st century was not driven by concerns over the scale of capital punishment, but by a need to reassert central state control over local government.

In the second part of this project I turn to the consequences of China’s authoritarian regulation of the death penalty through the courts since 2007. I identify a series of resultant contradictions in four domains: the judiciary, the legal profession, penal legislation and state secrecy. In each of these domains I begin by showing how the Chinese case of death penalty reform diverges from the US example. In Chapter Three I explain how the SPC expanded its administrative capacity in order to handle the additional work of death penalty review. In Chapter Four I show that the process of death penalty review created a new national venue for death penalty defense. While lawyers were not the focus of death penalty reform, reform is shaping the development of a capital defense bar as part of China’s legal profession. In Chapter Five I examine the introduction of a new sanction—life without parole (LWOP)—as an alternative to death for only one capital crime: bribery. The creation of this sentence for a non-violent crime showcases the ways that seemingly obvious rationales for capital punishment, such as permanent incapacitation for dangerous offenders, differ in China and the US. In Chapter Six I explore China’s refusal to reveal data about capital punishment. I show that death penalty reform puts death penalty secrecy at odds with other Chinese legal initiatives promoting transparency, legal representation and due process protections. I conclude by arguing that death penalty reform may have reduced executions, but it has also further institutionalized capital punishment in China, making the practice harder to abolish.

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