For an administration that has bought into the concept of “soft power,” President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Cabinet shot itself in the foot on Friday by executing five death-row inmates, bringing the number of state executions in the past year to nine.
The government defended its action by repeating its claim that while it hopes to eventually abolish the death penalty, public sentiment favors retaining it. In other words, the administration is not guilty. Its hands were tied and, champion of democracy that it is, it had no choice but to listen to the public, even if it meant joining the ranks of the few “rogue” states that continue to defy the global trend toward abolition of capital punishment.
This rationalization contrasts sharply with other instances where, despite substantial public opposition, the Ma administration forged ahead with controversial policies, saying it knew what was in the best interest of the public. Therefore, what we are dealing with is not so much a democratic government, but one that uses democratic tools very selectively and only when it is convenient to do so.
Fully aware of opposition at home and of the sensitive timing of the executions — coming little more than a month after an investigation showed that an airman had been wrongfully convicted and put to death in 1997 — the administration also proceeded with the executions knowing that it would spark angry reactions among its allies.
Soft power, which Ma and other officials have hailed as the reason behind some of the administration’s recent successes abroad, lies in the realm of ideas and principles. Going against the grain, in defiance of growing international norms, is hardly exercising soft power and could likely complicate Taipei’s relations with a number of countries whose support is instrumental to ensure Taiwan obtains the international space it aspires to.
Besides the damage to its reputation, the executions, after a nearly five-year hiatus, also add to a series of developments that are incrementally taking Taiwan closer to China, where state executions are as routine as they are despicable. Not only has the Ma administration been largely silent on human rights abuses in China, it is now adopting some of its harshest practices — hardly a soft power means to distinguish democratic Taiwan from authoritarian China.
The administration’s argument that the executions were in response to public worries about criminality also doesn’t hold water. National Police Agency statistics show that murder and non-negligent offenses recorded by the police in 2000 stood at 1,132. By 2005, when the death penalty was put on hold, that number had dropped to 903. If, as the government claims, the death penalty was an effective deterrent against such types of crimes, we should have seen a resurgence of such offenses from 2006 on. However, rather than shoot upwards, that number continued to drop, reaching a low of 803 in 2008 and 832 in 2009.
Clearly, factors other than the death penalty have had an effect on people’s willingness to commit violent crimes. Several studies by criminologists and psychologists have shown that crime is an irrational act, in which the actor does not logically weigh costs versus benefits. What is more likely to influence criminals is their assessment of the chances of getting away with the crime rather than the nature of the punishment if caught.