China’s Use of the Death Penalty: European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights

From 2003-2015, GBCC carried out four successive 3-year projects funded primarily by the European Commission with additional support from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth office, with the long-term objective of abolishing the death penalty in China, through a continued reduction in the number of offences subject to capital punishment. These projects have focused on supporting step-by-step reforms to reduce the number of executions. The activities are not aimed directly at death penalty abolition, working instead to develop mutual understanding among Chinese and European stakeholders, supporting and influencing Chinese legal reformers working on the death penalty debate.

GBCC began these projects in 2003, five years prior to China’s first announcement at the 2007 UN Human Rights Council that they were officially pursuing the abolition of the death penalty. Through the course of these projects, the debate in China has thus been shifted from whether or not the death penalty should be abolished, to how this abolition can be achieved. GBCC’s contribution to these reforms, particularly through these four EU funded projects, is summarised below.

Strengthening Defence in Death Penalty Cases (2003-2006)

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This project was conducted in partnership with the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). It raised important issues relating to the weak position of defence lawyers and their clients in China, both in relation to the pre-trail processes and sentencing. It aimed to identify what can and should be done to empower defence councils to play an effective role in death penalty eligible cases and, more generally, to establish an effective system of legal aid.

A key output of this project was the empirical research study on death penalty, which was published by CASS and the Max Planck Institute as ‘Strengthening the Defence in Death Penalty Cases in the People’s Republic of China: Empirical Research into the Role of Defence Councils in Criminal Cases Eligible for the Death Penalty’. The data collected showed considerable variation across different parts of the country in sentencing outcomes in criminal cases that carry the risk of capital punishment, particularly at the stage of the first instance trial.

An independent evaluator described the project as a success, and attributed this to the very good working relationship between GBCC and the Chinese authorities: “an essential pre-requisite to be able to work in this highly sensitive area in China”.

Moving the Debate Forward: China's Use of the Death Penalty (2006-2009)

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One of the key obstacles cited by government representatives in China against abolition of the death penalty is public opinion. Retaining and using the death penalty is perceived as being deeply embedded in Chinese thinking about justice and punishment, so promotion of abolition is seen to be very difficult. This project sought to analyse the links that exist between public opinion, criminal policy, legislation and legal practice, and to initiate attitudinal changes amongst political and legal actors as well as the public at large. A further objective was to guide Chinese criminal law reform, particularly with regard to a possible reduction in the number of capital offences, against the background of the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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), as well as the Max Planck Institute, the Irish Centre for Human Rights, and the Death Penalty Project (London).

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 who supported and were involved in various project activities.

An independent evaluator stated that ‘the opinion surveys are without double the most important part of this project’. The two surveys suggested both that Chinese citizens are not so hostile to restriction and abolition of the death penalty as had previously been supposed, and also that it is criminal justice practitioners who are in the greatest need of education regarding the realities of capital punishment and the human rights issues in retaining the death penalty.

Downloadable resources from Research Survey on the Death Penalty in China

Introduction, by Roger Hood, Professor of Criminology and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University (4 pages)

Survey of Public Opinion, by Dietrich Oberwittler and QI Shenghui, Max Planck Institute, Freiburg, Germany (30 pages)


Promoting Judicial Discretion in the Restriction & Reduction of Death Penalty (2009-2012)

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The 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 in the course of this project, conducted by GBCC in partnership with Wuhan University Law School and the Irish Centre for Human Rights. Evidence and sentencing guidelines were drafted with a focus on sentencing 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.

Building on the findings from the previous project, that 91% of criminal justice professional supported the death penalty and that many were unfamiliar with international standards relating to the weighing of evidence and the use of sentencing discretion, the project focused on ‘training’ on these matters for 127 judges from 6 six provinces and a pilot project carried with the support of the Supreme People’s Court.

“Use Less” – Judicial Restraints on the Use of the Death Penalty in China (2012-2015)

This project aimed to reduce the use of the death penalty in China through judicial restrictions by:

  • promoting effective enforcement of current criminal policy on reducing capital punishment;
  • improving the use of evidence in death penalty cases;
  • developing better safeguards in trial procedure for capital crimes.

With the ultimate objective of ensuring the death penalty is limited to the most serious cases only, improving criminal procedure leading such that there are fewer miscarriages of justice, and improving confidence in court handling of death penalty cases amongst the legal community as well as the wider public.

GBCC designed this project from the outset such that the Chinese partner – the International Death Penalty Research Centre at Beijing Normal University – took the lead in delivery, with GBCC supplying project management advice and tuition, thus building up China’s own capacity for conducting these large, internationally supported projects.

Date posted: 13 November 2015

Categories: Criminal Justice


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