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The Death Penalty, with Chinese Characteristics


Fri, Jun 15th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, May 28, 2001

The European Parliament, considers capital punishment to be both barbaric and inhumane, regardless of the means by which the death penalty is carried out. They routinely mention the United States in the same breath as China, Iran and Iraq, as countries where executions are routinely carried out.

China executed 29 people in one day last week. The crimes ranged from rape and murder to corruption and running criminal gangs. In China, executions are public events. In 1993, three colleagues of mine stumbled upon an execution being carried out in southwest China near the borders with Laos and Burma.

My friends, two men and one woman, were on their way to visit an aid project site when they drove into a road block set up near a village.

Army trucks were blocking the way and special forces were manning the blockade.

They were near a Dai village. The Dai are an ethnic minority group, somewhat like our Native Americans, who live in the low-lands in a sub-tropical area of Yunnan Province. Rice farmers, they build their houses on stilts to allow for the tropical air to circulate under their houses, thus keeping them cool.

The execution was taking place near the village. While the three aid workers were told to remain in their vehicle, one of the guards was forthcoming with news that five people were being executed that day. They had been caught smuggling opium into China from Burma.

The five people lived in the area, a couple of them from the Dai village itself. That’s why the executions were taking place there, as a public lesson to the villagers “that this is how we deal with drug traffickers”.

The village was empty as the villagers were required to watch the executions.

In this area of China, with its proximity to the Golden Triangle, (Thailand, Laos, Burma), opium production is a traditional way of life. Old people in the Dai village routinely smoked opium as a medicinal treatment for their aches and pains. And, up until now, the Chinese authorities had turned their heads the other way, knowing that old people, too poor to afford modern medicine, were still using opium.

But in the early 1990’s, the Beijing authorities issued a crackdown on drugs as they were seeing an increase in heroin use in urban areas. Thus the showcase executions in the Dai village.

The Peoples Republic does not release the total numbers of people they execute yearly, but in the book Mandate of Heaven, Orville Schell writes, “Drug trafficking and use was so widespread that between 1991 and the middle of 1993 police claimed to have arrested 14,000 dealers and to have executed many of them.”

\In China, people executed are shot. A placard is placed around their necks, detailing the crimes they have committed, so that the public will know why the person is being executed. Across the placard is a big red X, indicating that the person and their crimes will be wiped out from society. The victim is then forced to kneel down with their head bent forward. They are then shot once in the back of the head by special police.

Waiting near the Dai village, my three friends heard the shots ring out. Shortly thereafter the crowd returned to their village and the road block was lifted.

So that the “state” should not incur any costs for ridding itself of these “criminal elements” it makes the family of the executed pay for the cost of the bullet. China is unapologetic about their policies on capital punishment, despite claims from outside that China’s judicial system does not provide adequate legal protection for the condemned.

Justice is swift in this country of more than a billion people. Some say, too swift.


According to the Justice Department, 98 persons in 20 states were executed in the United States in 1999: 35 in Texas; 14 in Virginia; 9 in Missouri; 7 in Arizona; 6 in Oklahoma; 4 each in Arkansas, North Carolina, and South Carolina; 2 each in Alabama, California, and Delaware; and 1 each in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

Ninety-four of the executions in 1999 were by lethal injection, 3 by electrocution, and 1 by lethal gas.

At the end of 1999, there were 3,527 prisoners under sentence of death, including convicted mass murderer Timothy McVeigh. This was a figure 2% greater than the previous year. All had committed murder.


By John Torgrimson

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