The Chinese government is considering a reduction in the number of crimes eligible for capital punishment, part of a long-term trend that has seen a decline in executions, though China still leads the world in the number of people put to death annually.
The proposal, which was put before the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Monday, would change the maximum punishment for nine crimes to life imprisonment, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported. The crimes include counterfeiting, fraudulent fund-raising, forcing others into prostitution, “obstructing a commander or a person on duty from performing his duties,” “fabricating rumors to mislead others during wartime,” and smuggling ammunition, counterfeit currency, nuclear materials or weapons, Xinhua said.
China now lists 55 crimes for which offenders can be executed. In 2011 it dropped the death penalty for 13 offenses. That move was seen as largely symbolic, as the crimes were generally nonviolent acts for which the death penalty was rarely used. But the move signaled a willingness on the part of the authorities to restrict capital punishment.
In 2007, China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, began reviewing death penalty cases following a series of well-publicized, flawed convictions, including the 2005 case of She Xianglin, a man convicted of killing his missing wife, who later returned to her hometown alive. In June, the Supreme People’s Court overturned the death sentence for a woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband.
China is believed to have executed about 2,400 people last year, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group. The official totals are considered secret, so rights groups and legal experts can only make estimates based on published sentences and details released in Chinese media reports. The 2013 total was about three times the number of people executed in all the other countries of the world combined, but far lower than the total in 2002, when China executed about 12,000 people.
While public opinion in China regarding the death penalty isn’t well documented, it is believed to have general support. While the government has gradually decreased the number of crimes eligible for execution, most experts believe it is unlikely to eliminate capital punishment altogether, particularly for violent crimes or for official corruption.
Some of the crimes for which China is now considering dropping the death penalty have been the subject of high-profile controversies. Wu Ying, a wealthy businesswoman who was sentenced to death in 2009 for fraudulent fund-raising, had her sentence overturned in 2012 after widespread public criticism.
In June, two defendants accused of raping an 11-year-old girl and forcing her into prostitution had their death penalty overturned by the Supreme People’s Court, which questioned whether the sentence was appropriate for their crimes and sent it to a lower court for reconsideration. The girl’s mother, Tang Hui, had become famous in China for her efforts to see those responsible for her daughter’s abuse executed. She was sent to a labor camp in 2012 in an effort to silence her calls for their punishment.