What was unusual was the intense public soul-searching the case also unleashed. Many legal professionals and others openly questioned whether justice was served by executing a young man who voluntarily turned himself in and confessed, and whose family offered to pay compensation. His crime touched a nerve here — a young man of privilege who killed a poor woman on a bicycle — but many blamed an online mob mentality for forcing a supposedly dispassionate court into imposing a death sentence.
The result was a public broaching of a long-taboo subject here: whether China executes too many people too hastily.
The government appears to be thinking the same thing. Last month, the Supreme People’s Court began implementing several new measures aimed at reducing the number of capital sentences.
“Yao’s case had a big influence on society,” said Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and member of a small group called China Against the Death Penalty. “A lot of people felt shocked. They felt shocked by the process. Some people thought the netizens pushed the court into giving Yao the death penalty.”
In China, executions are typically carried out swiftly and out of public view — traditionally with a single gunshot to the back of the head, but now increasingly by lethal injection. A handful of highly publicized cases, like Yao’s, are reported in the media, but the annual toll is not released and is treated as a state secret.
But Amnesty International, which tracks capital punishment worldwide, estimates that China executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined — as many as 6,000 people put to death in 2010. By comparison, according to Amnesty, the country with the next-highest recorded rate of executions in 2010 was Iran, with 252, followed by North Korea with 60, Yemen with 53 and the United States with 46.
Abolitionists acknowledge that the majority of Chinese still back capital punishment. But they also note that majorities in some European countries support the death penalty even as their governments have abolished it. Xu and other abolitionists say they hope Yao’s case will give new momentum to a cause that had for years failed to find much backing here.
“I feel the number of people against the death penalty has grown very dramatically” in just the past year, said He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University who has always opposed capital punishment. “In the last 15 years, only two or three people in this country were trying to abolish the death penalty.” Now, he said, the abolitionists are gathering strength so fast that “you can call it a movement.”