Chinese authorities have executed at least 198 persons, mostly by pistol shot, for crimes ranging from murder to gold speculation in the year ending June 30, a check of official press and courthouse notices revealed.
Some of the executions have been to raise public indignation against a wave of violent crimes. They appear to have ignored requirements for Supreme Court review of death sentences contained in China's new legal codes.
The usual method of execution, a pistol shot in the back of the head of the kneeling victim, is reminiscent of the way thousands of friends and relatives of the current Communist Chinese leadership were killed by Nationalist Chinese officials during the civil war.
The current wave of executions is a revival of the tougher and more public means of justice of the 1950s. The victims appear to have been convicted of ordinary, not political crimes, although some appear to have suffered because of their connections to Communist Party factions now out of favor.
The Chinese authorities seem genuinely worried about the rise in crime, particularly robbery, as youth unemployment continues to plague cities here. Police were authorized last month for the first time in a decade to carry pistols and other weapons on duty, and there have been official reports of Army units aiding police in street patrols.
A foreign visitor to the eastern city of Jinan last week reported a pitched battle between two youth gangs armed with clubs that stopped only when the youths saw him approaching. There was blood on the street, he said. Peking's mayor, Lin Hujia, told a recent meeting of the Municipal People's Congress that residents were afraid to walk the streets at night and criminal gangs ruled some neighborhoods.
The Chinese have become so concerned about the situation and the need to publicize it that they have begun to publish some general crime statistics, something the communist authorities were reluctant to do in the past. A new weekly magazine, China's Legal System, published by the Ministry of Justice, reported this week that crime had dropped an average of 8 percent from May to June in 162 cities, with robberies taking a 26 percent drop.
Most Chinese criminals know that crimes against foreigners would bring even harsher penalties than usual, so foreign visitors here find the streets unusually safe. Although the Chinese have yet to reveal basic crime rates, the incidence of robbery and violence may actually be far lower than in large American cities, because of the far more stable family and neighborhood situations here. But many Chinese do not view it that way.
"Some criminals have robbed people in broad daylight, freely murdered and committed other violent crimes, raped women and stolen public and private property," a Shanghai newspaper, the Liberation Daily, said. "People who live in ground-floor apartments dare not even leave their laundry outside to dry. The thieves are everywhere."
While not directly referring to the mass meetings and executions, the Ministry of Justice said the latest drop in crime resulted from "more than a half-year's strengthening of social order." Most of the criminals executed in the last year have been convicted of murder or rape, although other crimes not associated in the West with capital punishment, including armed robbery, drug peddling and gold speculation, have also resulted in death penalties.
A check of the press and public death notices revealed that another 214 persons have been condemned to die but given a unique Chinese reprieve. These death sentences were suspended for two years, with the understanding that if the prison officials find that a convict is sufficiently repentant, they may commute the death sentence to life in prison.
In one of the most publicized criminal trials here lately, with several invited foreign journalists present, a Peking court gave unusually harsh sentences to two construction workers who had robbed a bank of $700. One received a 20-year jail term and the other was sentenced to death but given the two-year reprieve. Both had prior convictions for petty crimes and had guaranteed themselves trouble by carrying homemade guns in the robbery. Handguns are rare in China, and the two said they had made theirs from parts of an old stove.
Some criminals have suffered from political discrimination. Wang Shouxin, described in a press report as "the greatest embezzler in the history of the People's Republic of China," was executed Feb. 29. She took about $350,000 from the fuel company where she was party secretary, but what may have proved fatal was that she seemed to have been a protege of the radical Maoist clique in Peking that was purged in 1976. Wang was a company cashier before the political purges of Mao's Cultural Revolution allowed her to climb high in the party.
Two other famous criminals, twin brothers named Xiong, were sentenced to death in November for "seducing, raping and indecently assaulting 106 young women," the People's Daily said. One was executed in a ceremony that was later shown on China's television news, with only two seconds of the pistol firing cut from the film. The other twin received a two-year reprieve. p
A Hong Kong newspaper said the twins' father was a former military commander in the Hangzhou area where they lived and speculated that they would still be alive if their father had not suffered from his connection with another disgraced Chinese official, former defense minister Lin Biao.