As Execution Reports Decline, Law Expert Challenges "Secret" Status

Reported executions in China have dropped by 35% over the last year, but this reveals nothing certain about the true number, which is believed to be well into the thousands. So closely guarded is this “state secret” that Amnesty International has abandoned publication of minimum estimates for China (PDF, p. 5) in its annual death penalty reports. The Dui Hua Human Rights Journal examines public support for greater transparency surrounding the death penalty, and translates one expert’s arguments against the current secrecy. From the introduction:

Capital punishment is rather unique among controversial criminal justice issues in that it has garnered relatively wide-ranging and sustained public debate involving a diversity of viewpoints. One subject that has been raised periodically is whether China is justified in its policy of refusing the public’s right to know how many people it puts to death.

Although the Chinese public is often described as favoring capital punishment, they don’t necessarily favor the secrecy that surrounds it. According to a general survey of Chinese attitudes towards the death penalty conducted in 2007 and 2008, 64 percent of respondents thought the government ought to reveal execution numbers.

Writing in support of this view in a commentary recently published by Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan rejects the government’s legal basis for classifying execution statistics as state secrets. Noting heated debate sparked this year by the capital cases of Yao Jiaxin and Li Changkui, Zhang argues that the public cannot speak rationally about abolition, or other topics, with little access to anything but sensational reports. Zhang calls for increased transparency in the number and nature of China’s death sentences.

The public’s thirst for greater transparency appears limited, however: while a clear majority expressed support for it when asked, only a quarter professed a general interest in the issue of capital punishment, with fewer than 3% claiming to be “very interested”. The study, conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law (PDF), found that 57.8% claimed to favour the death penalty in general, while 78% supported it specifically for murder.

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