Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Capital Punishment(s)

Today's news carries two striking examples of how capital punishment gets used by quite different regimes to govern in very different ways. Nazila Fahti reports in the New York Times on the execution of adulterers and other "moral" criminals by the Iranian government. Hard pressed by a faltering economy and frustrated young people, the regime appears to be using executions as a way to dramatize its major claim to legitimacy, i.e., upholding the religious values of society.

In the NYT business section, Joseph Kahn reports on the swift execution of the former head of China's Food and Drug Administration what had confessed to taking bribes to authorize certain bogus drugs, apparently leading to some deaths. According to observers, the death sentence was considered harsh given the high rank of the official and the fact that he had confessed. According to Kahn:

...Mr. Zheng’s case appears to have served a political purpose, allowing senior leaders to show that they have begun confronting the country’s poor product-safety record. Shoddy or dangerous goods, including drugs, pet food and car tires, have damaged its reputation abroad, especially in the United States.

While this may work domestically, one wonders whether the Chinese government hasn't simply reinforced the global perception that they respect human life less than their own political and economic fortunes.

Both examples suggest quite different logics of punishment then capital punishment in the US. In each case, capital punishment is serving a non-crime model of the state. In Iran it is the state's religious authority that is being reinforced with capital punishment. In China, it is the state's Confucian position as the father of the nation. In the US, in contrast, capital punishment allows the state to perform a kind of service to individual victims.


Unknown said...

I agree with your claim that both Iran and China are using capital punishment as a display of their sovereignty, but I don't quite agree with your assessment that Chinese capital punishment is a reflection of Confucian values.

I think China is executing corrupt officials as a means of deterrence, albeit an extremely drastic one.

Jonathan Simon said...

What I could learn about China would fill volumes in libraries if we still had them. I suspect you are right that the Chinese state takes deterrence quite seriously as a mechanism of power (as the US and UK did at comparable points in their industrialization, although I would not tie it to that). That is by no means incompatible with sending a message about the state's unified virtue as the protector of the people, re-charged by the taking of life.

Jonathan Simon said...

BTW the journal I co-edit with Malcolm Feeley, Punishment & Society will publish a volume of articles on penality in Asia that begins to shed some much needed light for those of us stuck in English only reading skills.