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China's debate on the death penalty becomes increasingly open

Calls for death penalty reform in China are growing, but so is the ability of the public to pressure courts into changing sentences perceived as too lenient – a development some say verges on mob justice.

By Megha RajagopalanContributor / September 28, 2011


Li Changkui, a southern Chinese farmer charged with raping and murdering a teenage girl before killing the girl’s 3-year-old brother, was tried for the third time in a Chinese court late last month. Both the evidence and charges against him were virtually the same as those of his previous trial, but this time he was sentenced to death.

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Months earlier, the Yunnan Provincial High Court had given Mr. Li a lighter sentence tantamount to life imprisonment – overturning a lower court’s death sentence. But the high court’s leniency sparked a massive public outcry demanding that Li be sentenced to death. “If Li Changkui doesn’t die, there is no law in China!” a commenter in an online forum wrote.

It was this onslaught of public pressure that ultimately led to an unusual decision to retry Li.

Li’s case, the latest in a series of controversial death penalty decisions, shows that the increasingly open debate on death penalty reform in China can be a double-edged sword: Though the contingent of lawyers, scholars, journalists, and judicial officials who advocate for reform has grown, so has the ability of the general public to pressure courts to change sentences perceived as too lenient – a development some say verges on mob justice.

“When it comes to popular will, I'm conflicted,” says Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “On one hand, when the public holds the courts accountable, it prevents problems like corruption, and that’s a positive function. But on the other hand, [in this case] it seems like popular will has too much power.”

World's leader in executions

China infamously executes the largest number of people in the world per year. Amnesty International pegs the figure in the thousands, but the true number is a state secret. Though there are relatively few intellectuals in China who favor completely abolishing the death penalty, judicial reform advocates say there is growing support for reducing the number of death penalty sentences courts hand out.

That movement reached a milestone in February, when an amendment to China’s criminal code struck down 13 charges from the list of crimes punishable by death, including smuggling historical relics and evading taxes. The amendment was heralded as evidence of the government’s commitment to reducing the number of criminals put to death.


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