It had been a quiet two years in the news concerning capital punishment in China but the political agenda of recent announcements of executions is a cause for concern.
China remains by far the world's centre of state executions, but the number of executions has dropped dramatically in the past decade, from 10,000 to 15,000 a year around 2000, to 2,000 or so last year. Precise numbers are impossible to obtain, but some of the motives for Beijing's attempt to reduce execution totals can be discerned.
China is sensitive to the objections that come from the massive scale of its executions and from publicity about miscarriages of justice. Beijing also wanted to reassert its authority over local governments that had been executing without supervision under the "strike hard" policies that started in the early 1980s.
The reforms China adopted in 2007 had some effect on the rate of executions, through the issuance of guidelines and the restoration of national judicial review, but much of the 80 per cent or more decline in executions came as local governments responded to Beijing's message of restraint.
If this is the good news about capital punishment in China, the bad news concerns the willingness of the regime to carry out executions as a policy to punish political dissent and challenges to national authority.
In June, there was a widely publicised execution of 13 Uygurs for what Chinese authorities characterised as "terrorist attacks". The publicity was no accident in a nation where the vast majority of trials and executions take place under the radar of media coverage.
The government wanted to send a message of disapproval not only to separatist partisans in Xinjiang but also to ethnic minorities in Tibet and Mongolia, where similar tensions exist between the centre and periphery. The party-state is much less concerned with current levels of crime and drug abuse within its borders than it is with threats of political autonomy.
The official reply to questions about the political dimensions of executions in Xinjiang is to draw a distinction between violent crimes and politics. In this view, the 13 people were executed for terrorist acts rather than political action, which suggests that violence in pursuit of political objectives should not be considered political conduct.
But, of course, the pages of world history are filled with events that were both violent crimes and political action simultaneously. Are not the separatists in Ukraine political when they are violent? What about the conduct of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in apartheid South Africa? And if the 13 people who were executed in Xinjiang were not engaged in a common political venture, why were they executed together and with uncharacteristic publicity?
The mixture of violence and political objectives is particularly troubling to the human rights community because governments that oppose separatists are frequently willing to assume that all who share the political objectives of separatists are also responsible for the violent acts that have been committed by some of their members.
When political conflict and crime control are mixed, the political context of capital punishment generates suspicion about a government's motives and the justice of its procedures. This is why people concerned about human rights get nervous about China, even if 2,000 executions a year are a sharp drop from 15,000. The political use of execution threats casts a deep and discouraging shadow over civic life in China.
Franklin E. Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. David T. Johnson is professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They are co-authors of The Next Frontier: National Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia
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