Death Penalty Reform

China has, in total numbers, the world's highest number of executions. There is currently no time-frame for abolition but there have been, over recent years, rapid developments in both attitudes toward, and implementation of, the death penalty in China and most notably the bringing back of review of all death penalty sentences to the Supreme People's Court (July 2007). As China takes steps towards the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reform of the number of crimes attracting capital punishment is being actively discussed as well as fair trial issues in so far as they relate to capital crimes. The GBCC has been working with Chinese partners since 2003 on procedural and substantive law issues associated with the death penalty. 

Limiting the use of the death penalty for drug related cases in China 2014
This is a seven-month project to support and influence sentencing guidelines to be issued by the Supreme People’s Court to limit the use of the death penalty for drug crimes by judges. This project was developed based on a previous GBCC EU death penalty project in Yunnan focusing on drug related crimes. GBCC will work closely with the Law School of Wuhan University and the No. 5 Criminal Court at the Supreme People’s Court.  

The Power of Evidence – 2010/11
Funded by the British Embassy Beijing, GBCC delivered a six month project to assess the effectiveness of the two new evidence rules; ‘Illegal Evidence Rules’ and ‘Death Penalty Evidence Rules’ jointly issued in July 2010 by five Chinese ministries, including the Supreme People’s Court. The project aimed to make evidence-based legislative recommendations concerning evidence law,  which will be included in the forthcoming amendment of the Chinese criminal procedure law. Research conducted during this project established that in spite of the passing on the new illegal evidence rules, judges remain reluctant to exclude illegal evidence, owing to vested interests, and the strong possibility that a “not-guilty” verdict will count against a judge in their performance and will result in loss of income and opportunity for promotion.
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Promoting judicial discretion in the reduction and restriction of the application of the death penalty 2009-2011
The overall objective of this project was to reduce and restrict the use of the death penalty in China by promoting judicial discretion through the training of judges in local courts and the development of strict sentencing and evidence guidelines for trial procedures. This was the first time that training on the international human rights convention in the application of the death penalty as well as international standards on a fair trial and independent justice was provided to Chinese judges.
191 higher and intermediate court judges from six Chinese provinces were trained. Evidence and sentencing guidelines with a focus on sentencing were drafted to restrict the application of capital punishment in the case of drug-related crimes. The guidelines were then tested in Yunnan province, which records a high prevalence of drug-related crimes. According to the Supreme People’s Court, drug-related crimes constitute one of the main reasons for the application of death penalty in China. This programme was funded by the EU European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the UK FCO Strategic Programme Fund. 

In view of the increase in new types of illegal drugs in China, Wuhan University held a seminar in December 2011 to discuss sentencing standards for crimes relating to these new drugs (such as chemical compounds easily produced in large quantities). When these types of cases arise, the current lack of bench marks for the quantity and type of these drugs has led to the death penalty being arbitrarily applied.

Following the judges’ training, Wuhan University (the Chinese partner on this project) delivered similar training to the criminal investigative police department (with responsibility for drugs-related cases) in Hubei province, which was welcomed by the Hubei Provincial Public Security Department.

Moving the Debate Forward: China's Use of the Death Penalty 2007-2009

One of the key obstacles cited by government representatives in China against abolition of the death penalty is that of public opinion. Retaining and using the death penalty is perceived as being deeply embedded in Chinese thinking about justice and punishment, and therefore promotion of abolition is seen to be very difficult. This EU-China cooperation project was launched in January 2007 and completed in October 2009. It sought to understand public opinion better and make efforts to influence and shape both the debate amongst the general public and amongst policy makers.

Altogether 30 individual activities were delivered by the GBCC project team together with two Chinese partners;  the College of Criminal Law Science (Beijing Normal University) and The Research Centre on Criminal Law (Wuhan University). During the project lifetime, more than 4,000 people from various organisations took part in the project activities and among them around 100 judges from both the Supreme People’s Court and Local High Courts as well as leading policy and legal reform leaders from the Chinese government have supported and involved in various project activities.

Key project outputs include:

  • An International Research Centre on the Death Penalty was established which will continue to produce evidence on ways to the eventual abolition of the death penalty.  
  • A website was developed and launched at the end of the project. The website is the first of its kind in China and has attracted more than 7,000 visitors when it was formally launched in October 2009.  
  • Six public fora on death penalty reform attracted 1,750 participants from the general public. 1,000 pamphlets listing key facts and key abolition arguments have been distributed. 
  • This project for the first time produced a scientifically reliable and comprehensive opinion survey on the death penalty. It appears that legal professionals are more in favour of the death penalty (91%) than the general public (58%). From a comparative prospective, the proportion of the general public in favour of the death penalty in China is within average. When presented with more information (on the availability of other forms of punishment or about the exact circumstances of the case for instance), the general public tends to be less in favour of capital punishment.  

This project was funded by the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the UK Strategic Programme Fund

Documents from Research Survey on the Death Penalty in China, 2007-9

  1. Introduction, by Roger Hood, Professor of Criminology and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University, (4 pages)
  2. Survey of Legal Professionals, by Wuhan University Criminal Law Research Centre
  3. Survey of Public Opinion, by Dietrich Oberwittler and QI Shenghui, Max Planck Institute, Freiburg, Germany, (30 pages)
  4. Comparative Survey, by Dietrich Oberwittler, QI Shenghui (Max Planck Institute), and Wuhan University Criminal Law Research Centre

Strengthening Defence in Death Penalty Cases
The main aims of the project (2003-2006) were to strengthen the capacity of defence lawyers to promote the legal rights of those accused of capital crimes. It did this through training modules for lawyers, workshops with legal aid centres, professional networking, high-level dialogue and research. This project was funded by the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the UK Global Opportunities Fund.

The GBCC's death penalty projects have been generously funded by the European Union, with additional support from the British Embassy in China's Strategic Programme Fund, formerly known as the Global Opportunities Fund.

5 September 2014