(Not) Talking about Capital Punishment in the Xi Jinping Era


In this paper, we investigate the death penalty in the People’s Republic of China in the Xi Jinping era (2012–). Unlike previous administrations, Xi does not appear to have articulated a signature death penalty policy. Where policy in China is unclear, assessing both the quality and frequency of discourse on the topic can provide evidence regarding an administration’s priorities. Therefore, we analyse death penalty discourse during Xi’s tenure and compare it with discourse under his predecessors. We base our analysis on three large datasets assembled for this project—the collected works of China’s leaders, a complete corpus of The People’s Daily and a database of academic publications in China. We find no references to the death penalty in Xi Jinping’s speeches. We also find a decline in The People’s Daily coverage of the death penalty beginning in 2015 and a sharp decrease in academic publications on capital punishment beginning in 2011. Our findings indicate that discourse on the death penalty has declined in the Xi era. We argue that the death penalty has been demobilised under Xi as a discursive site of political signalling. Finally, we conclude with some observations about discursive silence.

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Published: 2022-09-01
Pages:79 to 91
Section:Special Issue: Death Penalty Politics
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How to Cite
Smith, T. ., Robertson , M. . and Trevaskes, S. . (2022) “(Not) Talking about Capital Punishment in the Xi Jinping Era”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 11(3), pp. 79-91. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.2478.

Author Biographies

Ohlone College
 United States

Tobias Smith is an Assistant Professor of Administration of Justice at Ohlone College and a 2021 China Fellow at the Wilson Center. His work investigates causes of variation in punishment, particularly the death penalty, with a focus on China and the United States. His dissertation, The Contradictions of Chinese Capital Punishment, received the 2021 Law and Society Association Dissertation Prize. He holds a Ph.D. and a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Australian National University

Matthew Robertson  is a PhD candidate in political science at the Australian National University. His thesis research uses computational methods to examine the political economy of organ trafficking in the People's Republic of China, as well as the intersection of organ harvesting with the death penalty. His work has been published in BMC Medical Ethics, the American Journal of Transplantation, and elsewhere.

Griffith University

Susan Trevaskes is Professor of Chinese Studies at Griffith University. Her research has resulted in over 70 publications including the first books in English on criminal courts contemporary China (2007), policing serious crime in China (2010), and death penalty reform in China (2012). She has published papers on Chinese law and justice in a number of journals including The China JournalThe British Journal of CriminologyThe China Quarterly, and Modern China. Her co-edited volumes include The Politics of Law and Stability in China(2014), Legal Reforms and Deprivation of Liberty in Contemporary China (2016), Justice: the China Experience (2017) and The Party and the Law in China: Ideology and Organisation (2020).