Sunday, 20 July 2008


I guess many of us have an interest in capital punishment; including me.
I’m not sure why this is? Especially as I grew up in a country, which had abolished it as a form of retribution, long before I was born (or at least I thought it had!).
Perhaps it was the arguments that seemed to rage annually between political groups as to whether it should be reinstalled into the British judicial organization, or the fact that my father worked in the British penal system, or maybe even growing up during a time of 'The Yorkshire Ripper', Fred West, and Michael Ryan. Whatever it was, I was always interested in the argument both for, and against the view of ‘an eye for an eye’. Whatever your preference it seemed a futile battle to try and reintroduce a punishment that defied any idea of compassion or ‘social sophistication’ into what had become a country run by middle lane drivers.

My interest was reawakened after I decided to live in China; in fact what really rekindled my interest was a guy who came to work for me during my time at NAC MG. Hu Jin is a young (mid-20’s) product of modern China, born into relatively wealthy family with close political connections. They could afford to send him to Singapore, Malaysia and Finally England to finish his education and improve his English. Hoping to give their only son the chances they never had - they held high hopes for his return to China.

Unfortunately his better than average upbringing and relaxed lifestyle in the west had turned him into a ‘little emperor’ a modern Chinese phenomena where by the single child policy is spoiling children to a point where enthusiasm, hard work, drive and ambition is replaced by lethargic, expectant, and ungrateful kids who are happy to live on the hand outs from their frustrated parents. Needless to say they weren’t exactly inspired when he took a job working for a foreigner (me) for a manufacturing company!

Hu Jin taught me a lot about Chinese culture, but one thing stuck in my mind and is still referred to in many conversations I have with fellow westerners – the Chinese approach to the death penalty.

You see Hu Jins father had been the British equivalent of a High Court Judge. Based in Nanjing he would preside over the more serious of crimes in the city and the Jiangsu province. Jin told me of the times he would go to the court to watch his dad in action, and how is dad was relatively famous in the city, a well respected upstanding man of the community.
He also told me how his dad would take him to the weekly executions at the local jails, he recollects that he first witnessed an execution at around the age of 6 – a birthday present from his dad to show him how bad people were dealt with. The executions weren’t public, but those with the right connections could find a way to view the dozens that were put to death each month. Death was administered by the condemned kneeling with hands tied behind their back, and a single bullet fired directly into the brain, exiting through the face, it was quick, relatively clean and probably just as important - cheap!

He would go on to tell me that more people were executed in Nanjing in one month, than in the rest of the world added together over any particular year – his summation didn’t include the other cities in China – which had equal levels of capital punishment.

This may lead you to think that China is an extremely violent country? Well there is crime, and some of the crimes reported openly in the English press here are truly horrific, they have their mass murders, rapists, armed robbers, embezzlers, kidnappers and every other form of criminal – but I would hazard to guess no more than the UK.

I have personally never witnessed any crime in China (Unless you count horrendous driving, bad manners, spitting or eating dog’s as illegal activities?), however I know it goes on – I also know that the punishments handed out by the Chinese courts are as ruthless as the crimes themselves.

One story that prompted me to write this blog was an article in the Shanghai Daily, it went to detail how a man from Nanjing had been sentenced to death after stealing millions in RMB. His crime was to convince investors to buy ant-breeding kits, promising high returns for the sale of ants after just one year. Yes I did say ant breeding, and yes I had to read it several times thinking that it was a translation error – but no, apparently ants are used heavily in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and thus have become a lucrative commodity – they should come around to mine in the summer, all the ants you can catch – for free!
I guess we all have a button that pushes us into backing the call for capital punishment. Rape, murder, cannibalism, the ‘Phoenix Four’ (Only joking lads) but I bet none of us would march naked through city halls, to call for a bullet in the back of the head to those who take money from foolhardy people who can afford to invest in hair brained schemes? But it wasn’t always like that…

I came across data that wipes that holier than thou smugness from our western faces, those who think the Chinese are barbaric and uncivilized, need to look at their own record books on capital punishment before passing judgment.

Capital Punishment was only legally abolished in the UK in 1999, although this was theoretical, as you were unlikely to have seen the wrong side of a hangman’s noose for Treason, or Piracy, the last felonies with the ultimate of punishments. In fact the last person to die from legally enforced punishment was in 1964 (the simultaneous hanging of Peter Anthony Allen and John Robson Walby).
Before that the UK had a long record for hanging men, women, children and horses (or was that a Gene Wilder film?).
At its peak you could receive the death penalty for almost anything including the usual suspects Murder, Treason, raping horses and stealing women, but also for shoplifting, poaching, damage to forests or parks and of course being Scottish. The only rest bite for those destined to hang would be war and a fate worse than death – deportation to Australia. During both these events the death penalty was commuted, as it was felt death by a German bullet or Ramsey Street a far worse punishment.

Public hangings were common, as were multiple hangings the most on record being 23 in 1649. The punishment itself was almost always a rope around the neck, although the method changed over the years from strangulation (The short drop method) which would take up to 5 minutes, to (hopefully) a neck break after 1872 when the long rope and short drop was brought in as a more humane way of disposing of criminals.
The most gruesome of punishments during the Great British Empire period, was the wrongly sequenced ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartering, the actual process involved being ‘Drawn; through the city streets behind a horse on fence pole bed, being Hung by your neck until you almost dead, and then the nice bit – you would have your genitals removed (not surgically) followed by disembowelment, which then led to your organs being burned in front of you (although I cant imagine too many survived up to that point), and finally the Quartering - your head, arms and legs would be removed. Your head would then be par boiled and placed on a spike for all to witness – the par boiling was to preserve the head for longer.
Capital punishment fell out of favour with the British judicial system and the public at large during the early part of the last century, probably due to the fact that most of the young men being subject to government sponsored genocide, or the first and Second World War as it was more commonly known.
There are still many countries where capital punishment is still the favoured discipline for the worse crimes, although it seems that the US prefers to keep people facing a lingering punishment before finally putting the ‘Quarter’ in the electric meter. It takes on average 11 years on death row before the switch is finally flicked.
The country that seems to have the most effective capital punishment is the one I am heading to whilst writing this Blog – Singapore. A former British Colony it’s not surprising that this country has a tradition of imposing the death penalty.
Favouring hanging, Singapore on average sentences 3-5 people per year to death; unlike the US they are all punished very quickly with a 100% death penalty rate following appeal. This, observers will tell you leads to reduced stress on the victim, the assailant, everyone’s families and a more effective deterrent to those wishing to carve up a neighbour.
People know that that if they murder or smuggle drugs in Singapore – they will end up dead when caught, no ifs, buts or maybes – just dead. One example of this is that there are very few armed bank robberies in Singapore; those villains that do decide to steal from banks have the common sense to do it when the bank is closed – thus reducing the risk of killing an innocent bystander. In fact crime is at a much lower rate than many countries in the world – a reason to promote capital punishment?

So is capital punishment good or bad? Well on one hand it does seem barbaric and against the message of forgiveness to end a person’s life to the hand of man, and not the hand of nature. But then denying a person freedom, and a reason for living, is surely more barbaric. If a wild animal is captured we see it as ‘inhumane’ to cage them, and endure them to a meaningless life, favouring a quick and painless death seems to be more acceptable to us when it comes to animals. I know we aren’t animals, but when people resort to ‘animal’ behaviour should they not be expected to be treated like said animals?
The prisons are full, and the UK spends more in keeping people who will never see the light of day again in prison, than it does on aid for the third world, renewable energy sources, environmental protection and politicians Taxi bills put together (Ok maybe not the Taxi Bills).
Does it reduce crime? Well perhaps in the US model it doesn’t, but if the punishment is quick, precise and unquestionable than the statistics suggest that it does – one thing it certainly does is take those committing the worst offences off the streets – for good.
What about mistakes? True mistakes do happen, but modern forensics have reduced the chances of this immensely, and our judicial systems have matured exponentially because of this, crimes of doubt can be commuted – crimes without doubt can be dealt with effectively.
And what of our man in China committed to death for selling ant breeding kits to greedy investors – well I say commute his death sentence, and put him in charge of “How to Sell Snow to the Eskimos” seminars for Fortune 500 companies until he has repaid his debts.


Miq-Tak said...

Well, I just can't get my head around the idea that any man has the right to take the life of any other. Which is of course all fine on a philosophical level, but as they say here in the US, a republican (Tory) is a Democrat (Labour) who's been mugged--I also can't imagine letting anyone harm my family, let alone letting them get away with it.

They also say a Democrat's a Republican who lost their job. Neither means anything, of course.

Very thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. And a subject that has been discussed for ages.
There is no evidence that death penalty reduces crime. There is no evidence that jail reduces crime either. If society is willing to accept death penalty, it is accepting also that 1) life is worthless, 2)revenge is an acceptable concept, 3)criminals cannot recover. These arguments can be challenged, of course, but for me, death penalty is a path that shouldn't be followed. I'd rather study a different kind of solution, one that takes in account the VICTIM (almost always overlooked), and that allows the criminal to truly pay back.

Paul Stowe said...

Thanks for the comment and your views on a solution that includes payback for the victim.
An interesting concept - although I am unsure what you mean by 'payback' - what if the victim is dead? how is the victim paid back then? or if the victim was raped or disfigured?
As you say a debate that will go on and on forever I guess!

Jack Yan said...

Very graphic post in some parts, Paul! You are right this is an age-old debate. I am not in favour of a death penalty having been told of studies (I have not read them myself) that confirm the anonymous comment above that it does not reduce crime. I take your point that prisons are full, but it seems it is more important then for governments to pursue policies that prevent crime—namely those of decent education and sensible economics that give people a sense of dignity.

Paul Stowe said...

Interesting point Jack - not sure what it's like in your part of the world - but most mass murderers, rapists and the like in the UK, are well educated, enjoying free health service, great social services and a very open and multi-cultural society. Yet they still decide on this path?