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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Standing Firm

A post on this blog from the 23rd August looked at proposed changes to China's criminal law, whereby the National People's Congress is considering removing several economic crimes from the list of those punishable by death. These include some types of financial fraud, and the smuggling of gold and precious relics. As this blog noted, the number of people executed on these counts makes up a small percentage of the total each year, so the numeric effect of this amendment will not be substantial.

It seems though that some Chinese citizens have started to worry over the long-term implications should the changes be ratified. Corrupt officials are often punished with capital sentences (usually commuted to life imprisonment after two years), as part of the Chinese government's efforts to demonstrate its support for healthy, fair government. However, according to Xinhua, the amendment has drawn criticism from those who believe that it will result in an increase in levels of corruption, and that it could be used as a means for officials to escape severe punishment for their crimes.

Thus, Chen Sixi (member of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee and Vice-Chairman of the NPC's Committee for Internal and Judicial Affairs) was online on Tuesday defending the change in the law and reaffirming the state's commitment to fighting corruption with capital sentences. Amongst other things, Chen was keen to stress that the amendment does not change the status quo vis a vis sanctions for dodgy officials, only that less severe crimes will no longer warrant the death penalty.

This incident reveals an interesting background to the corruption issue. Xinhua does not tell us who constituted the critics of the amendment but, be they citizens or observers/academic analysts, such criticism shows how sensitive a political topic the abuse of public office is. For the Chinese Communist Party, the chance to hand out severe punishments to those unlucky enough to get caught (or more likely investigated) does no harm to its image in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. In addition, as was perhaps the case with the recent sentencing of Zheng Shaodong (the former Assistant Minister for Public Security), charges of abusing offices can also be a handy cover for politically motivated change (what was once called 'purging').

The recent criticism provided state media with a handy opportunity to reaffirm the party-line on corruption. It also seems likely that this strict anti-corruption stance will continue to be CCP policy for some time. Although one of the reasons why the NPC is considering changing the law is to do with human rights, capital sentences allow the Party to conveniently place responsibility for particular problems on the shoulders of just a few individuals. Therefore, it can be seen to be taking a hard line while at the same time skirting around the true causes of corruption. After two years, individual sentences can be quietly reduced to life imprisonment, by which point the CCP will have got the maximum headline benefit out of the case. Few would be inclined to discard such a helpful political tool.

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