China’s Supreme People’s Court is not known for weighing into public debates about China’s legal system. However, during a recent promotional visit to the Supreme Court, one judge, Li Xiao spoke to reporters in defense of the well-established death penalty while another, Liu Guixiang addressed the burgeoning social credit system, according to Reuters. Each is a key function of China’s Supreme People’s Court as it responsible for both reviewing and approving all death sentences and for blacklisting people who do not follow court orders under the new social credit system. China is believed by Amnesty International to have the highest number of executions in the world at an estimated 2000 people a year, though the official figure is considered a state secret. The comments come in the wake of the execution of 58-year-old Xu Youchen who was charged with the murder of a police officer, despite Amnesty’s campaign to prevent the sentence. Amnesty International is well known for opposing the death penalty for any reason and criticized China’s handling of the evidence in this case per Radio Free Asia.
Li particularly emphasized the popular support for the death penalty as a barrier to its abolition, though also stated that the Supreme Court would be “cautious and restrained” with its use. She told reporters that “For thousands of years, the idea of ‘a life for a life’ has been deeply ingrained among ordinary folk… If we released the figure, then ordinary folk would say too few were killed.” Meanwhile, Liu spoke in defense of the upcoming social credit system, in particular, the restrictions on luxury purchases, as a way to keep track of court-mandated debt repayments. He cited the lack of a U.S.-style bankruptcy system as a key motivation for this policy. “If I am bankrupt and say that I cannot repay my debts, then I enjoy a luxurious, extravagant life day to day – I reckon you would be put in jail for that in the West,” Liu was quoted by Reuters.
Conversely Amnesty International has long maintained a stance against the death penalty stating, “Amnesty International opposes the death penalty unconditionally, in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime, the guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual, or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.” China, believed to be the biggest executor of criminals in the world, is of particular focus to them. Indeed, the death penalty is increasingly believed to be an archaic method of criminal justice which is irreversible and not an effective deterrence against crime, aside from the various human rights that it violates.
While the defiance of China’s judges in face of criticism against the death penalty could be viewed as a discouraging sign for its abolition, the fact they have been drawn into comment by the pressure of rights groups may also be seen as a positive sign that debate has begun on the issue. China has recently taken steps to reform their legal system, in 2007 by limiting the death penalty to be decided on only by the Supreme Court and in 2015 by reducing the number of capital crimes from 55 to 46 in These are slow steps; perhaps unacceptably slow for some, but even Supreme Court Judge Li offered a sliver of hope in another statement “…the conditions for abolishing the death penalty in China are not yet met.” The hope is that the use of the word “yet” indicates they will be sooner rather than later.