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Death Penalty in China: The Law and the Practice

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 33 Issue: 4 Dated: July/August 2005 Pages: 367-376
Hong Lu; Lening Zhang
Date Published
July 2005
This article provides an overview of the Chinese legal tradition of the death penalty, the legal evolution of the death penalty when the Chinese Communists took power, and current death penalty practice in China.
The death penalty took primarily three forms in ancient China: strangulation, decapitation, and slicing of the body. Public executions were intended to elicit obedience to the law and allegiance to the government. On the other hand, a contrasting philosophy was promoted by Confucians, who believed that social order was best maintained through rulers' role modeling of exemplary conduct by rulers and punishment accompanied by education designed to reform the offender. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, two competing views of crime and punishment have emerged. One is the populist approach that relied on ad hoc people's tribunals, summary justice, and harsh punishment. Under the influence of this view, the death penalty was used extensively during the 1950s and 1960s, primarily against counterrevolutionaries. A contrasting model of crime and punishment was inspired by the Soviets, which involved a more formal, bureaucratic, and codified legal framework. The enactment of the 1979 Criminal Law and the 1979 Criminal Procedural Law marked the end of the era of lawlessness and the beginning of a system governed by law and legal procedures. The 1979 Criminal Law included 28 capital offenses, and the 1997 revised Criminal Law expanded the number of capital offenses to 68, primarily due to new types of economic offenses linked to the move toward a market economy. The reliance on the death penalty as a means of deterring crime stems from the tradition of increasing the severity of sanctions during periods of economic transition. 19 notes, 31 references, and appended list of case collections and a listing of capital offenses stipulated in the 1997 Criminal Law