China's grim spectator sport
The Washington Times
July 9, 2001
BEIJING -- In its bid to win Friday's vote for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has promised to build eight spanking new sports stadiums. But in China this spring, authorities have been using older stadiums to stage mass sentencing rallies that publicly condemn prisoners to death.
From April to June this year, turnstiles across the country spun faster than ever in a killing spree denounced by Amnesty International as an "execution frenzy" and "huge waste of human life." During the past three months, China has executed at least 1,751 persons -- 30 more than the rest of the world managed over the past three years. The human rights watchdog counted the executions from 2,960 death sentences handed down during the ongoing "Strike Hard" campaign against crime.
While the death toll threatens to break even China's bloody records, Amnesty believes the real figure could be much higher, for national statistics on the death penalty are guarded as state secrets.
The accounts that do emerge tell a familiar tale of public humiliation and summary justice. Judicial procedures, hardly thorough at the best of times, are speeded up to move suspects from trial to execution in mere days. Political prisoners, and even minor criminals who would earn light sentences at other periods, have received the death penalty during this fourth "Strike Hard" crackdown since 1983.
On their final morning, condemned prisoners are displayed at sports stadiums or public squares, held in leg irons with their heads forced low in shame. Several years ago, the potential Olympic football venue, Beijing's Workers Stadium, hosted such macabre events. In most other Chinese cities, invited audiences, often several thousand strong, are still required to watch the sentencing, and learn to obey the law and the government. At the end of the show, the prisoners are paraded in People's Liberation Army trucks, the tumbrils of the Chinese Communist Party, on the way to the firing squad.
Death may not be the final punishment in some cases. There are persistent charges of organs being harvested without prior consent. Last week a Chinese doctor seeking asylum in the United States testified to peeling the skin at least once from a still breathing man. China rejects his testimony as lies.
The frequent imposition of capital punishment was among multiple human rights abuses listed by the European Parliament in a resolution passed on Thursday opposing Beijing's Olympic bid. Critics argue the country remains too undemocratic to warrant the Olympian-sized stamp of approval.
Other observers hope the award of the Games will increase pressure for change. In its own bid literature, Beijing predicts that while membership in the World Trade Organization will open the doors to business in China, the Olympic Games will open the country to all humanity. The optimistic view is that the Games will inspire more humanity within the Chinese government and set a seven-year timetable for at least some improvements.
Although some officials in Beijing say their ultimate goal is abolition, no one expects the death penalty to disappear within that time frame. "China is going through transition," said Beijing lawyer Zhang Xinshui of the Jinding law firm. "There is more social unrest, injustice and a widening income gap. The crime rate is rising, and terrible crimes are more common. Most Chinese believe in the saying, 'Kill someone, and pay with your life.'"
But the death penalty also applies to a wide range of nonviolent offenses, including 20 types of economic crime. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, one of the West's favorite Chinese leaders, is a firm proponent of execution to punish the corrupt officials threatening the success of his reform program.
Reducing that scope is the most realistic goal of lobbying groups like the British foreign secretary's Death Penalty Panel, which explains London's pro-abolition stance to Chinese government officials.
"China has a long tradition of capital punishment," said Mr. Zhang, the lawyer. "While living standards and educational levels are still low, there is no way it can be abolished. It remains the ultimate deterrent. Like nuclear weapons, the death penalty shouldn't be used lightly, but it is powerful by its presence."
Amnesty counters that rising crime rates show the failure of the death penalty as an effective crime deterrent.