BEIJING — Grave robbers and panda smugglers would no longer face the death penalty under criminal code changes being weighed by China, home to the world's most active executioners.
A committee of the National People's Congress this week opened discussions on eliminating the death penalty as punishment for 13 crimes, including the smuggling of silver and gold, tax cheating and the theft of fossils. Grave robbery and rare-animal smuggling are also among the crimes being considered for lighter sentences.
Although Chinese law guards information about executions as state secrets, the country is widely believed to put to death thousands of people every year. Even at conservative estimates, the annual toll of Chinese executions is higher than that of the rest of the world's governments combined, Amnesty International reported this year.
The heavy use of capital punishment has drawn heated criticism from the international community. Domestically the government also has faced a public debate about the death penalty, which has long been advocated by officials as an effective deterrent against crime and chaos.
Human rights workers here and abroad greeted this week's discussion of limiting executions with delicate and guarded optimism, neither willing to ignore the symbolic importance of China scaling down its execution rate nor eager to overstate the number of lives likely to be saved.
"We need to support this new move because this is the future, the abolition of the death penalty," said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. "For now, it's just one small step forward."
But like other human rights workers, Biao pointed out that the proposed changes could do little to erode China's execution rate, because death has seldom been imposed as punishment for the crimes being considered for sentence revision.
In a move of protest against China's policy of secret executions, Amnesty International this year refused to publish its estimate of how many people were put to death by the government, because publicly available information greatly underrepresented the toll, it said.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group, estimates just under 5,000 people were killed last year; Chinese activists put that figure even higher.
The changes being debated would also do little to pierce the secrecy surrounding executions, said Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager at Dui Hua. "Its meaning is more symbolic than what it will accomplish in terms of actual numbers," he said.
Many observers contend that China is moving, albeit slowly, toward a more fair and humane judiciary. The Chinese high court now reviews all death penalty cases, and confessions made under torture were recently declared inadmissible.
But even if China goes through with the push to reduce executions, the death penalty would remain on the books as a punishment for 55 crimes. Many of those are nonviolent offenses such as accepting bribes, making fake medicine and damaging public property.