By Gillian Wong
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — China dropped the death penalty for more than a dozen nonviolent crimes Friday and banned capital punishment for offenders over the age of 75 in a move seen as symbolic, but unlikely to significantly reduce executions.
China executes more people every year than any other country, and critics say too many crimes are punishable by death.
The official Xinhua News Agency said it was the first time the communist government has reduced the number of crimes that are subject to the death penalty since 1979, when the Criminal Law took effect.
But an expert said the move was unlikely to significantly reduce the number of people executed annually in China, since people convicted of those crimes in the past were rarely given the maximum penalty.
Thirteen economic, nonviolent offenses will be removed from the list of 68 crimes punishable by the death penalty, said Lang Sheng, who heads the legal committee of the Standing Committee to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature. The 13 crimes include forging and selling invoices to avoid taxes, and smuggling cultural relics and precious metals such as gold out of the country.
Lang told reporters at a briefing in Beijing that abolishing capital punishment for the elderly was done “to demonstrate the spirit of humanity.” It was not immediately clear how many people over the age of 75 are put to death annually in China.
However, the other changes would not bring down the number of people executed because it targets crimes that have rarely, if ever, had capital punishment applied to them, said Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.
Capital punishment can still be used to punish other economic crimes such as corruption.
“The big obstacle, I think, is corruption. Because there still is a very strong sense that corrupt officials must die, among the Chinese population at large,” Rosenzweig said. “The revulsion for that offense is so strong that there would be a potential political cost to eliminating the death penalty for corruption.”
Legal authorities have sought to stamp out abuses of the death penalty, particularly by demanding that all death sentences be reviewed by the nation’s supreme court. They have called for the penalty to be imposed only in the most extreme cases, although the punishment has wide public support in China.
Lang noted that the changes reduced the number of crimes punishable by death by nearly one-fifth and said the government would consider further revisions in the future.
“Of course, there are still some crimes that we’ve kept the death penalty for,” he said. “For these, we will have to continue to study further according to the requirements of our economic and social development, the needs of maintaining public order, and also the people’s will.” ♦