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.

Promoting judicial discretion in the reduction and restriction of the application of the death penalty 2009-2011
The overall objective of this project is 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 is the first time that training is provided to Chinese judges at that level on international human rights convention in the application of death penalty as well as international standards on a fair trial and independent justice. 191 judges have been trained in six provinces of China, in higher and intermediate courts. 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 counts 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 is funded by the EU European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the UK Strategic Programme Fund. 

Progress Report
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.

After three sets of judges training sessions since the start of the project, the Wuhan University team is preparing to extend the training to the police in Hubei province. This has been welcomed by the Hubei Provincial Public Security Department.
This project is generously supported by the European Union

The Power of Evidence
GBCC has secured funding from the British Embassy Beijing for a six month project to assess the effectiveness of the two new evidence rules; ‘Illegal Evidence Rules’ and ‘Death Penalty Evidence Rules’ issued July 2010 by five ministries, including the Supreme People’s Court. The project launch seminar took place in Beijing on 26-27 June 2011. The objective of the project is to make legislative recommendations concerning evidence law which will be included in the forthcoming amendment of the Chinese criminal procedure law. 

British embassy in Beijing logo

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.

13 January 2012