China, a Punitive Society?


The allegation that punishment is a core element of culture does not seem to explain the rapid changes in attitudes towards the death penalty seen in most modern societies during the last few decades. Attitudes of harshness and death in punishment are much more easily changed than proponents of the “cultural” explanation think. The misunderstandings about China (often held by Chinese themselves) are that a long tradition of harsh punishment has made such values into an unavoidable cultural norm. China, however, is not exceptional in harbouring penal populist norms as such, and Chinese history was much more lenient and merciful than assumed in these simplified arguments about “Chinese cultural harshness”. Even if China today is exceptional in the uses of harsh punishments and executes more people than the rest of the world combined, there is no need to see this fact in terms of Chinese culture. China can use its own traditions to end this situation effectively in a fairly short period of time if there is the political will to do so. Given such political will, public opinion will follow suit.

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