If there is one human rights issue China and the US have no discord over, it is their adherence to the death penalty but in both countries there is unease over its imposition, leading American academics say.
"One thing the United States and China agree on is the death penalty," said Jerome Cohen of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US during a discussion at Hong Kong University at the weekend.
"I think it is a very sad thing," he said.
China liberally uses the death penalty but keeps the number of executions a closely guarded state secret.
According to the London-based rights group Amnesty International, China executes more people in a year than the rest of the world combined.
A recent book titled China's New Rulers, purportedly written by a highly placed government source and published last year in the US, said China has executed up to 15,000 people a year during its four-year "strike hard" campaign against crime.
Earlier this year, the government said the campaign would continue for at least another year.
Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project, said "with more than 3,500 people on death row today, the United States is facing a real crisis of confidence in its system of capital punishment."
"The release of more than 100 wrongfully convicted persons from death row in recent years has even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment wondering whether we are executing the guilty or the innocent," Maher said.
Cohen is an authority on the Chinese legal system and Maher recently visited Beijing and Shanghai, where she participated in programs on reform of the death penalty and the role of defense lawyers in the US.
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"Chinese scholars are suggesting reducing the number of offences for which the death penalty can be applied," he said.
Better representation for criminals could also reduce executions, he said, noting criminals do not always receive legal representation. Defense lawyers are also vulnerable to punishment because the Chinese Communist Party has a stranglehold on the police and judiciary, exercising control over both investigation and trial.
"In the post-9/11 situation, we now have this threat beginning to emerge [in the US]," Cohen said, referring to the difficulties faced by lawyers defending people accused of acts of terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Maher said that in the US, "chief among the problems with the capital punishment system is the inadequacy of qualified and experienced lawyers to represent those charged."
Representing someone charged with the death penalty is politically unpopular in many southern states where more than 80 percent of executions take place. On the other hand, 98 percent of prosecutors in death penalty jurisdictions are white and they also have political ambitions, Maher added.
While there is no public discussion on the ethics of the death penalty in China, Cohen said judges were profoundly concerned about public opinion.
Currently Chinese public opinion as gauged through independent Internet Web sites favors the death penalty but anger often flares over false convictions, the academics pointed out.
Maher said that US Attorney General John Ashcroft has instructed his subordinates to seek the death penalty in more federal cases than ever before.
Science has given critics of the death penalty "renewed energy" after DNA testing exposed many wrongful convictions.
This year, while US public support remains constant at about 68 percent, it drops to a bare majority when life in prison is offered as an alternative, Maher said.
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