Legal experts gathered at Beijing Normal University in 2008 as part of a forum series on promoting death penalty reform. During a forum on alternatives to capital punishment, one of the topics raised was whether life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) could work in China. Although some participants supported LWOP—as a means to abolish the death penalty while satisfying public calls for safety and retribution—even they saw the measure as either transitional or insufficient. What follows are arguments explaining why LWOP lacks Chinese characteristics.

DANG JIANJUN (党建军), Deputy Chief Judge, No. 4 Criminal Tribunal, Supreme People’s Court

“In the US, a capital case takes a long time … and ultimately the amount of money paid out in the course of the case may be much more than that used to keep a person in prison for life. In China, the situation is somewhat different; the progress of the hearing and the [amount of time] is not the same. So just considering economic factors, the amount of money that needs to be spent sentencing and executing the death penalty is clearly much lower than the amount of money necessary to use LWOP.”

“Consider the psychology of the offender, an offender that should at first have been sentenced to death has his sentence changed to death with reprieve. Initially he may have been very happy. But when he finds out that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, this may gradually cause him to feel hopeless and act recklessly, negatively impacting both prison management and the offender’s own reform.”

SHI YAN’AN (时延安), Associate Professor, Renmin University Law School

“All of the textbooks that I have seen say that sentence reduction and parole are changes in the execution of a sentence made in accordance with the behavior of the person during the execution of the sentence. … When the verdict is announced, can we predict whether, during the execution of his sentence, he will change, alter his character, be amenable to reform?”

“For us, we not only consider the concept of retributive punishment, we also consider the educational and reformative aspect of punishment. We emphasize this basic idea: people can be reformed. So if we feel at the time that we determine and announce their sentence that a person cannot be reformed and decide that they must [be sentenced to] LWOP, this does not accord with our idea of criminal punishment.”

ZHAO BINGZHI (赵秉志), Dean, Beijing Normal University Law School

“Some people believe that LWOP does not violate UN rules that state that people sentenced to the death penalty must have the right to sentence reduction because [LWOP] is a life sentence. Other scholars say that if death sentences can be reduced but life sentences cannot then there is a discursive paradox. This is because Chinese Criminal Law stipulates that the death penalty can be commuted to life imprisonment or directly to fixed-term imprisonment. … [So] according to our criminal law ideology, I’m afraid [LWOP] cannot be adopted so easily. Its negative impact would be quite large.”


YU PING (虞平), Fellow, NYU US-Asia Law Institute

“Just because it is an alternative measure, does not mean it is a static measure, especially when the US introduced the system of LWOP. At the time, the US was considering abolishing the death penalty and thought this phase was necessary [in order to provide] a measure that the public could feel comfortable with and support in order to abolish the death penalty—the punishment most in need of abolition. But this does not mean that the system of LWOP is itself a reasonable system; it is merely a system that is being used to replace the least reasonable and the least rational system.”