Official and public enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning in China, where from 2007 to 2011 the annual number of executions fell by half.
China is believed to execute more people annually than the rest of the world combined. Even with the drop in executions, researchers estimate that China still puts about 3000 people to death each year.
But many violent offenders are now given “suspended death sentences,” which in practice amount to about 25 years in prison. And the death penalty has been avoided in some recent high-profile cases. Last month, the Supreme People’s Court overturned Li Yan’s death sentence for the killing of her husband, finding that evidence that her husband had abused her required a new trial.
Public opinion surveys show declining support for the death penalty in China, and widespread awareness of its unreliable and unfair administration. A 2007-2008 survey by the European Commission found that 69 percent of respondents knew that poor defendants are more likely to be executed than wealthy ones, and 60 percent thought that innocent people might be wrongfully convicted.
The Chinese press increasingly reports about wrongful convictions, and public outcry over these cases has persuaded some elites of the need for reform. In 2007, China’s highest court began reviewing all capital cases, which has discouraged lower courts from imposing death sentences.
Criminologists believe international criticism has exerted downward pressure on death sentences and executions in China. Chinese legal scholars and judges have come to see their country as the outlier, now that more than two-thirds of the world’s nations have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.