Punishment Chinese-style: beware the red check mark

I LIVED in Baoding, China, for five months in 1984. I was a foreign expert, teaching linguistics to English majors at Hebei University. As time passed, I grew fonder and fonder of my students and colleagues. I admired the culture of the country that had produced these wonderful people. But there was something about China I did not like at all. China is a country where there is a great deal of punishment. China is estimated to have executed 20,000 people just since August 1983.

When I lived in Baoding, every now and then posters would appear on the walls, and crowds would gather to read them. They were written in black letters on a white background, and there was a red check mark in the lower right-hand corner. They announced death sentences, and the red check meant that the sentence had been carried out. I don't know how frequently these signs appeared, since I can read only a little Chinese and could not tell a new poster from an old one. But the presence of these notices showed that it was important for the public to be informed that they were taking place.

After leaving Baoding, my family and I traveled around China for two weeks before returning to the United States.

In Hangzhou, a city famous for its beauty, we saw an ugly sight: a convoy of five open trucks driving prisoners around the streets. Each truck had about 8 or 10 prisoners, 4 or 5 on each side of the truck. They were standing up with their hands tied behind their backs and facing the crowds on the street. Policemen and soldiers stood behind them to make sure that they faced the street. The trucks were preceded by a row of motorcycles driven by policemen in white uniforms. The convoy drove quite slowly, with sirens and horns making a great deal of noise. Passers-by were clearly meant to see what was happening.

I still read the China Daily (an official English-language newspaper published in Peking) regularly, and I began to notice stories a few months ago about people receiving severe sentences for economic crimes. A well-publicized campaign against corruption has been going on since last July. People are being executed for crimes such as fraud, swindling, and robbery. In modern times and in modern countries, crimes short of murder and treason are not capital offenses. As a result of this campaign, people are being executed for crimes that are neither violent nor political.

It makes perfect sense for any regime to try to ensure economic success. All governments, all over the world, take measures to prevent crime. And yet there is something wrong with what China is doing. The severity of the punishments is disproportionate to the offense. White-collar criminals can be deterred by sentences that fall short of the death penalty. Deterrence does not seem to be the issue at all. As a matter of fact, the campaign seems to have been quite ineffective. The May 15 issue of China Daily reports in a front-page story that in the first three months of this year, there was an increase of 630 percent in the number of serious economic crimes over the same period last year.

China is going through a period of great change. Although the innovations are quite popular, not everyone is happy about them. Change involves dislocation, and even popular innovations cause problems for certain individuals. What is no doubt even more significant is the fact that the reforms of Deng Xiaoping are ideologically questionable. The need for scapegoats exists everywhere, but it is especially important in those countries where the government cannot admit error. Since in China one may not attack the party, one must blame economic criminals rather than policy for the failings of the economy.

All the communist states that have existed so far are obsessively punitive. It is paradoxical that a philosophy concerned with humanitarian goals like the elimination of inequality has led to so much cruelty. It is tragic that a leader as original and flexible as Deng Xiaoping should be perpetuating a climate of harshness. Draconian punishments survive in backward regions. They also remain in totalitarian countries, where the dominant ideology claims to hold the solution to all problems.

George Jochnowitz is a professor of linguistics at the College of Staten Island.

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