In a surprising response to public protests, the Chinese government recently prohibited police from publicly shaming criminal suspects through such devices as parades, used most controversially for parades of prostitutes. This is the latest in a series of developments that portend a more humane justice system, most notably in the area of capital punishment.
Hearing the news last month, I was reminded of scenes I encountered while traveling through the countryside outside Guangzhou late in the summer of 1983. China's "Strike Hard" campaign was underway; it was the first of many efforts to address what Chinese leaders saw as an alarming growth in lawlessness -- and dissent. In August 1983 the authority to execute people was transferred from the Supreme Court in Beijing to provincial officials. Thousands were executed by the next spring festival, six months on.
As I passed through a small town, a man and his two sons, each tilting forward from the weight of the large white boards strapped to their backs, were driven past, en route to an execution ground. The boards proclaimed their death sentences; the men's arms were tied behind them. I remember the elder screaming his innocence as a throng of feral youth rushed ahead to get in position to witness the shootings. Farther up the road I encountered another execution scene, this time in a sports stadium with a throng of enthusiastic onlookers.
China's active use of the death penalty has long sparked international discomfort, particularly as evidence has mounted that the threat of capital punishment does little to deter crime. The official position is that someday China will abolish the death penalty but that "conditions aren't right" to do so now. Yet as long ago as 1984, the Chinese government forbade the public parading of prisoners who were about to be executed. Such spectacles remained commonplace, however, especially in the countryside, prompting Beijing to issue regulations against public executions in 1986. Rumors of executions in sports stadiums plagued China's bid for the 2000 Olympics, and when bidding for the 2008 Games, Beijing made clear that public executions were not permitted.
Ten years ago, China was executing more than 10,000 prisoners a year. The human rights group I direct estimates the annual rate to be less than 5,000 now, a reduction due in part to President Hu Jintao's effort to develop a "harmonious society" -- and in part to withering criticism at the United Nations and in the human rights dialogue with Europe. China still executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined. Today, executions generally take place in specialized chambers or vans, away from public view. Lethal injections, as opposed to gunshots, are increasingly used.
Last month, the day before the ban on publicly shaming criminal suspects was announced, news began circulating in Chinese media that the National People's Congress would consider amending the criminal code. Reforms were said to include reducing from 68 the number of crimes punishable by death, as well as the age at which convicted criminals can be executed. If such reforms are enacted, nonviolent crimes in China will, for the most part, be exempted from the death penalty.
The proposals are part of a movement aimed at reining in the indiscriminate use of the death penalty. In late July the Chinese Supreme Court tightened rules on introducing evidence obtained by torture, particularly in death penalty cases. It is not clear whether this will be effective in curbing the rampant torture used to obtain confessions in capital cases. The media have exposed a number of cases in which people were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes based on confessions obtained by torture, and a number of death sentences handed down in corruption trials are often said to be politically motivated.
While many have thought the death penalty is invoked to deter crime, there is another reason capital punishment reached such astonishing levels in China. For years organs were harvested from executed prisoners. An August 2009 Ministry of Health statement acknowledged that 65 percent of the 10,000 transplants in China involved organs from executed prisoners. Before China's Supreme Court reasserted its right of review over death sentences in 2007, it was not uncommon to find arrangements linking execution grounds to hospitals performing transplants, often for overseas clients. Now, transplantation of prisoners' organs is subject to strict regulations.
In many respects, China's human rights record falls far short of international standards. But important progress has been made in reducing capital punishment. When Hu took office as Communist Party chairman in 2002, the country was executing as many as 12,000 convicted criminals a year. The annual number of executions could be down to roughly 2,000 by the time Hu leaves office at the end of 2012. Opponents of the death penalty will argue, passionately and correctly, that that number is still a human rights violation of the most serious kind. But the sharp drop in executions is a positive step toward the government's goal of ensuring that only "the most vile and serious crimes" are punishable by death -- and its stated goal of eventually abolishing the death penalty in China.
John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group with an office in Hong Kong.