By Paul Nash, Contributor
Last week China removed 13 of the 68 crimes listed in its criminal code that carry the death penalty. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s de facto legislative body, passed the Eighth Amendment to the Criminal Law on August 23rd in the largest revision since 1997.
The crimes dropped are mostly economic and non-violent in nature, such as tax fraud and the smuggling of valuables or cultural relics, offenses for which the death penalty is rarely imposed in judicial practice.
Nonetheless, passage of the Amendment seems to represent an important symbolic move. It is the first reduction in the scope of the death penalty since the Criminal Law was enacted in 1979 and part of China’s on-going efforts to reform its legal system. In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court took back the death-penalty review process from local higher courts, purportedly resulting in meaningfully fewer executions and more sentences commuted to fixed-term imprisonment.
Chinese legislators and public opinion generally believe that the nation’s socio-economic conditions have not yet matured sufficiently to allow the death penalty to be abolished altogether. Many policymakers and observers in China, however, have expressed optimism that better law-enforcement practices, economic development, and social improvements may eventually lead to other non-violent crimes being taken off the list, such as corruption and bribery, and possibly to an eventual end to capital punishment in a country with a very long and bloody history of using it.
China remains one of the most active executioners in the world. Amnesty International estimates that China executes more people each year than all governments combined, although its execution rate on a per capita basis is likely smaller than many other countries. Actual numbers are hard to determine—and thus also the potential impact of the Eighth Amendment—as the Chinese government does not disclose the number of death verdicts handed down and carried out.