By Teng Biao
Of all the criminal cases in China, those involving corrupt officials sentenced to death arouse the greatest interest.
The morbid examples abound: from the public cheering for the recent death sentences for the two deputy mayors of Suzhou and Hangzhou to the executions of the head of the State Food and Drug Administration, of the Secretary of Justice of Chongqing City, and of the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
China is the global leader for the number of corrupt officials who are sentenced to death, and actually executed each year. But, judging by the seemingly endless "public demand" for this kind of punishment and the surging popular anger, it would seem that there is actually not enough of it. While so many people are "beheaded," executives at all levels are still determined to brave death by trying to make the most of corruption.
So one cannot help but wonder, are there too many or too few executions in China? What else should be taken into account when considering the fate of corrupt officials — apart from the law, international human rights standards, and the public opinion?
Strictly speaking, China has no "justice," relying only on "political law" when it comes down to dealing with corrupt officials. The so-called "double regulation" (the Communist Party's special investigative procedure in which officials are asked to respond to allegations of corruption or other violations) means that sentences are delivered under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party's discipline inspection departments, and that the code of criminal procedure is only a reference, just as the prosecution and the trial are just a semblance of justice.
It is almost unheard of for Chinese judges dealing with corruption cases to make independent judgments by relying solely on the judicial procedure, evidence submitted, and the law. Deciding whether to indict a corrupt official, and how to deal with him, is to a great extent not the result of an enactment of the law, but rather the outcome of a political power struggle.
When corrupt officials confess their crimes in court, they most often say that they had lowered their personal standards, and strayed away from their thinking and principles learned during their education. Sometimes they may add that they had a poor understanding of the law. A country that regards materialism as a model is in fact floating on idealism. The most important factors lying at the root of corruption have never actually been discussed, neither in the media, nor elsewhere.
If political education is the answer to rampant corruption, then all the propaganda courses we are constantly exposed to would have solved the problem by now. It is thus obvious that the reason for corruption lies elsewhere, in the fact that there isn't enough control and supervision over public power, and in the lack of democratic elections and freedom of the press.
The current level of corruption in China is systematic and widespread. It is so entrenched that honest officials are now part of a minority that risks being left behind. It is a system where corruption is the rule rather than the exception, and it is thus not an exaggeration to say that transparent officials are victims in a country that lacks democracy, supervision, and has a weak judicial system. This means that, no matter how great the anger of the public, it will not be sufficient to put a stop to corruption.
If the anger of the public is understandable, it doesn't mean that the death penalty is the right remedy for the problem. On the contrary, the reasons for abolishing the death penalty are numerous. One of them would be that, like most crimes, corruption has a strong social dimension. Criminals are never born evil, and, in the case of corruption, it is quite clear that social factors play an important role. Corrupt people are of course despicable, but society has to accept a certain amount of responsibility too.
It is also clear that corruption brings huge benefits to many government officials, which makes them the loyal guardians of this highly flawed system. They know that only by defending such practices can they bring wealth to their families and offspring. The appeal of the public service (and its implied advantages) is such that most Chinese university students aspire to become government officials. The mechanism is known as "Stupid taxpayers, money arrives quickly."
The death penalty can also be a political tool — people who do not have a protector, or who irritate their superiors, or who get caught on the wrong side, are often chosen as a scapegoat. Everyone can be a victim: once you lose your footing in the political power struggle, the accusations of corruption and decadence are very likely to fall on you.
According to the Chinese professor Hu Xing Do, 99% of the corrupt officials will never be caught. The few who do get caught are simply considered unlucky, and even if their punishment is typically heavy, the dissuasive effect remains minimal. In addition, the calculation is that even if you are jailed for ten years on corruption charges, the total amount you that have obtained through bribes is largely superior to what you could have honestly earned during the same period.
Under a healthy system, it would be impossible for so many government officials to get their hands on the astronomical sums of money they have access to today. If every person who tried to have his palm greased was brought to trial, corruption could not have developed to such an extent. If officials knew that bribes as small as 1000 yuans could ruin their career, they would hesitate a lot more before stepping over the line.
China is the world leader in executions, carrying out 90% of them worldwide. There are 24 types of violent crime in China and 31 non-violent types subject to the death penalty. If most countries have abolished the death penalty, those that still use it generally only apply to violent criminals such as murderers. People in China viscerally hate corruption and are reluctant to see the death penalty dropped. They do not see why corrupt officials should benefit from foreign standards on human rights. But the truth is that those who would benefit most from the abolition of the death penalty would not be corrupt officials nor gangsters, but the weak and the poor. It is they who suffer disproportionately from corruption and crime.
Taking into account Chinese customs and public opinion, it would obviously not be a wise decision to raise the idea of the abolition of the death penalty for corrupt officials. Those who want to see the death penalty abolished should look to various non-violent cases that have aroused huge public sympathy. The Internet, for example, has played a huge role in mobilizing the public opinion. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to ignore the weight of public opinion expressed online.
Progressively this phenomenon will change China. But for the time being, my humble opinion is that the Chinese people are too bloodthirsty to give up the death penalty as the state's favorite method for sweet revenge.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Teng Biao. All rights reserved ©Worldcrunch – in partnership with Economic Observer.