In a sign of the Chinese government’s interest in legal reform, the Supreme People’s Court said in November last year that it would eliminate the use of torture to extract confessions, stop local officials from interfering in legal decisions and allow Chinese judges to make their own decisions.
Various Chinese government departments are “actively studying” reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong (李保東) told reporters during the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue last month.
Chen said that several officials in the courts, prosecutors and the police are resisting the changes to the death penalty. He said an announcement on dropping the death penalty for up to half a dozen “non-violent” crimes could be due this year.
Capital punishment applies to 55 offences in China, including fraud and illegal money-lending.
However, China will not scrap the death penalty for those found guilty of corruption, which the government is waging a renewed campaign against, Chen said.
“China now has some major corruption cases, and [if the government] were to scrap the death penalty, the ordinary people will not agree,” he said.
The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks the release of political prisoners in China, estimates that 3,000 people were executed in 2012.
For comparison, 43 people were executed that year in the US, according to the US Death Penalty Information Center.
The legal reforms reflect a desire by Zhou Qiang (周強), who took over as president of China’s Supreme People’s Court a year ago, to handle cases in a more professional way, and tackle wrongful convictions, academics said.
“Zhou Qiang seems a serious political character, he’s not only well connected, he’s legally sophisticated,” said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. “But he’s not all-powerful, and whatever he says doesn’t necessarily take place at the local level. This is a continuing struggle.”