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Monday, 23 August 2010

Changes to the Law

Amnesty International estimates that China executes more people per year than the rest of the world put together. While most death sentences are given for murder and drug-related crime, capital punishments can also be applied to a selection of economic crimes, including corruption, fraud and smuggling. For example, in 2007, the former head of China's food and drug safety watchdog (Zheng Xiaoyu) was executed for corruption amid several health scares surrounding Chinese products.

However, this might be about to change. This morning, the Xinhua News Agency reported that an amendment to China's criminal code has been submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (China's most senior legislature) for its first reading. The proposed change would remove 13 economic offences from the current list of 68 crimes punishable by death, including the smuggling of precious metals and relics, some types of financial fraud, and teaching others how to commit crime.

China has maintained the death penalty for such offences up to now for the purpose of upholding public security and stability. Although the proposed change to the state's execution policy is in line with the declining use of the death penalty across the world, numerically the effect of this amendment will be minimal. Economic criminals make up only a small fraction of the total number of people executed in China each year, and death sentences for some offences are extremely rare (for example, the last capital sentence for teaching criminal methods was issued in 1997). If the amendment were to be passed it will be a definite step in the right direction, but further reform to the criminal law will be needed for rates of execution in China to drop significantly.

This current session of the Standing Committee of the NPC is also considering several other important additions to the law. These include the safeguarding of aspects of China's national cultural heritage, the criminalising of drink driving and making employers criminally responsible for defaulting on their employees' wages. As these are all only receiving their initial reading, it remains to be seen whether they will be passed into law or not.

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