On December 29, 2009, Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, was executed in Urumqi, in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, for the crime of drug trafficking. Shaikh, who had been caught entering China with four kilograms of heroin, was reported to suffer from severe mental health problems and was allegedly duped into bringing the drugs into China by men who had promised him that they would make him a music star. According to news accounts, his trial judges even laughed at some parts of his court testimony but did not order a psychological evaluation.

Shaikh’s death marked the first execution of a European citizen by the Chinese government since 1951. Strong EU opposition to the death penalty, along with the specific concerns that Shaikh’s crime was non-violent and he may not have been making rational decisions, produced an outpouring of condemnation from Europe. (The US government remained silent.)

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated, “I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted.” Jiang Yu, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, responded, “Nobody has the right to speak ill of China’s judicial sovereignty. We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations.” Shortly thereafter, the upcoming Sino-British human rights dialogue was postponed.

It is unfortunate that Shaikh’s execution has hampered the dialogue, because it is precisely over issues such as the death penalty that more discussion is needed, not only between China and western nations, but also between China and its neighbors. Far more executions take place in Asia than on any other continent, and China is hardly the only Asian country to mandate the death penalty for foreigners who traffic drugs, so in some ways it is not surprising that China bristles when it is singled out. Yet, China is clearly also exceptional, executing more people every year than the rest of the world combined, setting it apart not only from Europe, but from every other country.

Abolition in Europe & Asia: A Continental Divide

About two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty officially or in practice. Europe is the epicenter of death penalty abolition, since a wave of abolitionist sentiment gripped the continent after World War II. Today, 48 of the 50 nations in Europe have abolished the death penalty; Belarus still employs capital punishment, and Latvia retains execution for crimes during wartime.

When European critics denounce capital punishment in the United States, they reasonably point out that the European continent—which shares cultural bonds with the United States, as well as broadly similar political and economic conditions—manages to administer criminal punishment without resorting to execution. But it is less appropriate to make similar arguments about China—a country with the world’s largest population, different cultural traditions, and an authoritarian central government.

Perhaps it is more useful to compare China to its neighbors. Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in Asia, and 95 percent of Asians live in areas where capital punishment is still employed. Of the 16 countries and jurisdictions that share a land border with China, more than half still retain the death penalty (see graph). These facts seem to indicate that the death penalty in Asia is ubiquitous, and that China is unexceptional, but the figures also mask a wide diversity in the application of the death penalty.

Prevalence of Asian jurisdictions using capital punishment

The Basic Similarities Disguise Wide Range of Policies

India, with over a billion citizens, still has the death penalty, which would seem to support the claim (often made by China) that large countries need strict punitive practices. But since 1995, India has only executed one person, while China has executed tens of thousands. This difference in degree is so large that it is clearly a difference of a kind.

Another common idea is that Confucian values and a tradition of retributive justice explain the death penalty in China and throughout East Asia. Under this view, observers should hold China accountable to the standards of its cultural kin, but China’s relatives are all over the map on death penalty policy. Singapore until recently had the highest rate of executions in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, Hong Kong and Macau abolished the death penalty in the 1990s. In between these two poles are countries like Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Japan retained capital punishment following US occupation after World War II. However, the average annual rate of execution in Japan has been in the low single digits each decade since the 1970s, despite a slight resurgence in use beginning in the mid-1990s. Japan’s justice minister is required to sign all death warrants, and at various periods in recent history, ministers have refused to do so. The September 2009 appointment of Keiko Chiba, an ardent supporter of abolition, as justice minister has effectively ushered in a moratorium in Japan.

Like Japan, South Korea retained capital punishment after World War II, and it has used the death penalty on a far larger scale than Japan. But since 1998, there has been a de facto moratorium on executions in South Korea, and its leaders have made repeated calls to officially abolish it.

Of course, China’s closest cultural counterpart is probably Taiwan. In the decades after the Kuomintang’s arrival in Taiwan, capital punishment was used widely, and by some accounts more people were executed, per capita, in some years during the “White Terror” campaign in Taiwan than under Chairman Mao Zedong on the mainland. Executions have declined continuously in Taiwan since 1997, when 38 people were put to death, and no execution has taken place since 2005. In December of 2009, Minister of Justice Wang Qingfeng announced the ministry would put together an implementation group with the goal of abolishing the death penalty in Taiwan by November 2011.

Surveys in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan indicate public support for capital punishment remains high, despite moves in all three countries to curtail its use. The opposition to capital punishment in all these countries has been spearheaded from the top, by leaders with strong convictions. The elimination (or reinstatement) of the death penalty has not, however, been a major talking point in political campaigns in any of the three countries.

If Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan represent democratic, capitalist Asian models, a different model is China’s two communist neighbors: Vietnam and North Korea. Like China, Vietnam and North Korea are secretive about criminal justice and capital punishment. While North Korea has stated in the past that it abolished the death penalty, indications are that North Korea continues to execute its citizens at high levels. Pyongyang’s delegates at the UN Universal Periodic Review of North Korea’s human rights this past December even acknowledged public executions still take place—an extraordinarily rare international admission.

So which countries offer the closest analogy? China remains an authoritarian regime that resists transparency and uses the death penalty at the highest levels in the world—both by rate and sheer number of citizens executed—with an estimated 5,000 executions in 2009. At the same time, executions have been decreasing, and China has said it would like to eventually eliminate the death penalty. Ultimately, China’s treatment of its citizens and its accounting to the global community will influence how it is compared: whether with an international pariah such as North Korea, or a prosperous country like South Korea, which commands respect for its openness and rule of law.