Penalizing Criminals with the Hangman’s Noose

China’s penchant for the death penalty could be an isolating factor
By Genevieve Long

There’s something to be said for being a good student of history, especially when it comes to China. Just consider the past two years. In that time, China has demonstrated a particular, repetitive, and deadly problem: melamine.

Melamine is a common industrial chemical with applications as a coating on dinnerware, and as a fire retardant, among other thing. It was never intended for consumption by living beings, human or otherwise. Even though the World Health Organization declared a “safe” level of melamine for human consumption in Dec., 2008, the scientific jury is still out on the long-term effects of melamine when consumed by humans, at any level.

Enter China’s milk and pet-food manufacturing industries. In 2007, it was discovered that melamine was being added to animal feed and pet food to boost the apparent protein level. The result was thousands of dead American household pets, and a subsequent uproar in the U.S. public and government. It also ultimately led to the indictment of several parties involved it the scandal by the U.S. government, and stricter standards by the FDA.

Fast-forward to late 2008, and history repeats itself as thousands of Chinese babies get seriously ill from melamine-contaminated baby milk. Watered-down milk from farmers and producers trying to up product volume and profit margins found its way to unscrupulous manufacturers masking the lower protein level with melamine. It’s a practice that has been happening for years, according to what one whistle-blowing farmer, Jiang Weisuo, told NPR late last year.

Because information is tightly controlled by the communist party, it may not be possible to know how many infants were actually sickened and killed. The last count publicly revealed was almost 300,000 sickened. At least six infants died from kidney failure.

As China continues to grow at a rate so fast that it almost outpaces itself, its political system under the communist party languishes. The imbalance of an archaic political system that overuses extreme punishments like the death penalty is nearly tipping the scales of a balanced society.

Legal punishments following both melamine scandals fall into that category. The Chinese Communist Party sentenced the head of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration to the death penalty in 2007 for his role in contaminated pet food. Following the recent contaminated milk scandal, two men were sentenced to death and 19 others given heavy sentences for their roles.

These seem like unusually harsh punishments until statistics are taken into account. For example, Amnesty International puts China at the top of the list of countries that use the death penalty in law or practice. While there has been a decrease in the death penalty worldwide since 1988, China is a different story. In 2007, China killed more than 470 people using the death penalty.

As China’s economy becomes more and more intertwined with the rest of the world, when will its practices of legal jurisdiction and punishment fall into line with the norms of other industrialized nations? Arguably, it may not be possible with the current form of government in place, which discourages dissent and emphasizes psychological and spiritual obedience to the communist party.

The answer could be that the road for China to become a true superpower will inevitably involve an overhauled government system. Likely something closer to a democracy—representative of the people’s needs and wishes. If this kind of government already existed in China, instead of two more deaths in the wake of the most recent melamine scandal, the complaints of grieving parents who publicly appealed for answers would have been heard. But instead, the parents who bravely stepped forward were taken into police custody and refused to speak to the media when released. Serious, open, public debates are a hallmark of a healthy democracy.

China has far to go to become a superpower that exercises judicial restraint in sentencing, and does not fear the voices of its own citizens.

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