Source: China Daily (9 July 2015)
Zhou Lei has followed the heated debate on WeChat on whether anyone involved in child trafficking should get the death penalty.
Zhou, a legal scholar, has not found the argument on the popular instant messaging tool annoying. Indeed, he spoke highly of it.
"It's progress that more Chinese have paid attention to the application of the death penalty, even though the subject of how to apply it still has a long way to go," said Zhou, a legal researcher from the Difficult Case Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law.
In his view, the death penalty has been controversial among the public, and the recent debate should be applauded "because some people have realized the extreme penalty cannot reduce crimes and would like to explain that to those with opposing views", he said.
In mid-June, a WeChat post with pictures and stories of abducted children called for child traffickers to get the death penalty. The message was reposted more than 540,000 times and stirred up public debate, pushing the death-penalty issue to the forefront.
Ruan Chuansheng, a criminal lawyer from Shanghai, said: "The most valuable thing is the debate itself, not figuring out an answer. It's good to see that more ordinary people consider the issue important."
The minimum penalty for traffickers of children under current Criminal Law is five years in prison, but in the most serious cases, including the abuse or killing of children, offenders can be put to death.
"It's good to see some people in the debate researched the law before they voiced opinions online. Further discussion of the issue and advice based on what is learned is more helpful to legislators who want to improve the law," Ruan said.
Since 2007, when China's top court began automatically hearing second appeals of death-penalty sentences, a major task of Chinese judicial bodies has been reducing death-penalty cases and helping guide the public's thinking on the issue, Ruan said.
Until about 10 years ago, grassroots courts could sentence someone to death and execute him or her, "which caused some unnecessary wrongful verdicts and did not protect human rights", he said. "But since the Supreme People's Court assumed the power to review such cases, every death sentence must be reviewed twice, reflecting the nation's cautious approach to the penalty."
Meanwhile, the number of crimes for which one can be put to death has gone down in recent years. Under current law, 55 crimes are subject to the death penalty, a reduction from the 68 on the statute books before a 2011 amendment cut the number.
In addition, a recent session of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, discussed abolishing the death penalty for an additional nine crimes.
The number of death-penalty cases "shows that our justices have realized that the extreme penalty cannot root out some socially complicated disputes, and sometimes it may accelerate the conflicts", said Deng Yong, a law expert at China University of Political Science and Law.
"The death penalty cannot keep some people from committing crimes, and the simple and violent punishment has not been the best solution to prevent offenses," Deng said.
"The country needs more sensible ways with wisdom to keep the public abiding by laws, such as imposing a higher cost for breaching rules."
However, it is not practical to eliminate the death penalty in today's China because a few criminals, including terrorists who inflict great harm on the public, still need to be regulated through harsher punishments, he said.
Justices must work hard in the long term to educate people seriously influenced by Chinese history, culture and tradition relating to revenge, "because the thought of 'a life for a life' has been ingrained in a number of residents' minds and cannot be transferred as quickly and easily as one would expect", he added.