While China is still executing more prisoners than any other country, those numbers are dropping fast. Author Zhang Lijia looks at the sometimes fierce debate on capital punishment in China for the IA-forum. Most Chinese support the death penalty, but that support is dropping fast, she writes.
In the past decade, I’ve noticed increased debate among the general public, often triggered by high-profile cases such as the victim of domestic violence Li Yan, cop-killer Yang Jia, and illegal fund-raiser Wu Ying.
It is a lot freer now for people to express themselves, especially on the Internet. Also, since everything regarding the death penalty is always shrouded in secrecy – the number of executions is still a state secret – people are immensely interested in relevant information that slowly comes out in the open. At the end of 2011, images of prisoners waiting for execution at a Wuhan prison sparked a fresh round of discussion on the issue.
The majority of Chinese people support capital punishment, citing the traditional saying “to repay a tooth with a tooth and to pay back blood with blood.” Such an attitude isn’t too surprising for a cultural tradition that places less importance on individual life than does the Western “humanist” tradition.
However, as China’s engagement with the rest of the world deepens, people’s views are changing. Many have learned that most European countries and most states in America have banned capital punishment. And more and more people, those better educated in particular, have accepted the idea of respecting human life and dignity as well as human rights, even the rights of a criminal.
This trend is reflected in a steady decline in public support for capital punishment. In 1995, a survey conducted by the China Academy of Social Science on the abolition of the death penalty indicated that 95% of ordinary Chinese citizens opposed the idea; in 2003, an online survey saw 83% of 46,000 polled opposed the idea and in 2008, an online survey by Sina, a popular website, saw that percentage fall to 67.2%. In this survey, 21.8% believed China ought to reduce the use of the death penalty, especially in non-violent crimes.
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