Washington International Law Journal


Jessica J. Shen


China’s frequent usage of the death penalty in order to achieve deterrence of crime is well known to the international community; however, China also has a strong tradition of legal mercy stemming from imperial rule. In turn, imperial legal mercy originated from Confucian values of benevolence and humaneness. Although modern China emerged as a rejection of Imperial China’s Confucian hierarchal social structures, these cultural traditions have endured. For example, Confucianism’s humane influence can be seen in statutory and procedural mechanisms demonstrating benevolence towards criminals. However, only applying this benevolence to a select group of people betrays modern China’s statutory and political objectives of egalitarianism and is inconsistent with Imperial China’s use of legal mercy. China creates a contradiction in its criminal justice system when it grants legal mercy for corrupt government officials but not for those convicted of other serious crimes. Although China has made great strides in curtailing death penalty sentences, only exercising benevolence toward a certain group of people contradicts the cultural, philosophical, and legal principles of benevolence and egalitarianism. As a result, if legal mercy is applied to anyone, it must be applied to all, not just those with political power. The current usage of legal mercy for corrupt officials should be instructive for moving towards a more merciful system for all.

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