Studying Chinese Netizens’ Opinions on Death Sentences

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Recently published by the University of Michigan Press, our new book (co-authored with Dr. Jianhong Liu from the University of Macao), titled Chinese Netizens’ Opinions on Death Sentences: An Empirical Examination, examined Chinese public opinion on the death penalty through the lens of Chinese netizens’ (Internet users) comments on 63 capital cases in 2015 (with a total of 38,512 comments). Compared with the rich Western literature, empirical research on this subject is still extremely limited in non-Western nations, including China. As the state which carries out the most executions worldwide, China has never conducted a national poll on citizens’ opinions toward the death penalty (let alone conducted a referendum), although it often claims “overwhelming public support” as a major justification for its retention and use of the death penalty. This post provides an overview of this study, setting out the methodology utilised in the research, the key issues that were addressed, and the main lessons regarding Chinese netizens’ views on capital punishment.

Unique methodology

Based on a content analysis of Chinese netizens’ opinions about China’s death sentences, our study provides the first in-depth examination of what Chinese netizens think about various death sentences and executions in China, and how and why they favour or oppose such sentences and executions. Methodologically, our qualitative data fill a significant gap in studies of Chinese public opinion on capital punishment, and complement previous quantitative survey studies in this field.

Given the impracticability of conducting a nationally representative survey in China and other weaknesses associated with survey studies (e.g. survey questions often lack specific contexts and only tap into respondents’ general and abstract opinions, while their opinions are subject to change given different circumstances), we turned to a forum of public comments (the website sina.com.cn) from which we collected netizens’ comments on news articles about death sentences in China. As the cases reported were real, concern about artificial manipulations in previous survey and vignette studies was no longer an issue in our design.

Though not a nationally representative sample, Chinese netizens serve as a better representation than samples utilized in previous studies in the country. The China Internet Network Information Center (2021) reported that the total number of Chinese Internet users had reached 1.01 billion (71.6% of China’s total population) by June 2021, and 99.6% of users access the Internet via mobile phones. This high level of Internet usage enables interested netizens to participate in our study. While geographical restriction was often a major limitation in past studies, data in our study covered all 31 provinces in mainland China and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Unlike survey respondents who might not have a real interest in death penalty issues and/or are ‘forced’ to answer questions that might not otherwise be on their mind, netizens in this study shared their opinions voluntarily, reducing potential problems of some methodological issues such as the social desirability bias. In addition, netizens’ interactions (i.e. exchanges of netizens’ comments) allow us to examine the potential effect of a unique form of public discussion and deliberation. Such online public discussions and deliberations fill a significant gap in contemporary China, as people still lack meaningful alternatives to voice their opinions and concerns about sensitive issues such as the use of the death penalty in the non-virtual world.

Key issues covered

Organized in ten chapters, our study examined a number of key issues. First, we started with basic but fundamental questions including what Chinese netizens commented on (i.e. the diversity of their comments), why they supported or opposed death sentences (i.e. the rationales of netizens’ opinions), and how they responded to each other (i.e. netizens’ interactions). Second, we focused on variances of netizens’ opinions and examined how their opinions might have changed given different circumstances such as crime types, characteristics of defendants and victims, legal procedures, and media reporting. Third, we paid particular attention to netizens’ evaluation of China’s criminal justice system and its professionals, and discussed how netizens’ opinions were embedded in China’s social, systemic, and structural problems. Last but not least, we critically examined the rationality of netizens’ opinions based on Jürgen Habermas’s ‘communicative rationality’ framework.[i] As Chinese netizens’ comments were made in specific cases, readers of this book would be able to contextualize netizens’ discussions, and learn lessons and draw conclusions about the commonalities and the uniqueness of China’s practice compared with other jurisdictions. The authenticity of our empirical data – from 63 death penalty cases with a total of 123 death sentenced offenders, covering 11 different types of capital offences – boosts the quality of this study and allows readers to gain a glimpse of the actual situation in China’s practice of the death penalty.

Main lessons

Collectively, a number of lessons can be drawn from this study. First, Chinese netizens’ opinions displayed a great degree of diversity on the range of topics covered (the breadth), the diverse views covered in each topic (the depth), and the variances of netizens’ opinions given the different circumstances of cases. Chinese netizens are not afraid of sharing their opinions online, sometimes with very bold and critical statements. In cases involving unpopular governmental policies (e.g. birth control policy, real estate demolition and relocation policy), they explicitly expressed their rejection and even lent majority support to capital offenders in some cases. Such bold voices and opposition suggest that government claims of “overwhelming public support” are misleading and fail to represent the nuances of netizens’ true opinions.

Second, the influence of Chinese culture is apparent in the majority of netizens’ opinions. Concepts such as sharen changming (a life for a life) and “killing one to deter a hundred” heavily influenced netizens’ support of death sentences. The influence of such traditional culture is what makes China “Chinese,” and it may pose obstacles to further reforms of China’s use of capital punishment (e.g. reduction or abolition). Third, netizens’ comments and discussions are embedded in contemporary Chinese society and reflect their opinions about existing social problems and systems, such as their concerns about rising crime rates and public safety, rampant corruption, problems of the healthcare system, widening social inequality, privileges enjoyed by governmental officials and the wealthy, and the fairness of the judicial system.

Fourth, our study presented a unique opportunity to examine the rationality of Chinese netizens’ discussions and deliberations online – a key component missing from past studies. Applying Habermas’s communicative rationality framework, we identified both elements of rationality and irrationality in our study. Major examples of irrationality include personal attacks, cursing, calling for legal punishment of innocent people and forgoing legal procedures, and various forms of discrimination. These examples failed to meet the Habermasian standards due to the nature of netizens’ behavior in violating contemporary moral and legal norms (e.g. calling for punishment of innocent people), based on flawed reasoning (e.g. discriminatory remarks), or carrying disruptive and damaging effect on the communication process or the consensus-building outcome (e.g. personal attacks, cursing, discrimination). In contrast, the case comparisons and constructive suggestions by the Chinese netizens presented good instances of rational arguments. It is through case comparisons that netizens questioned fairness and equity in contemporary Chinese society and brought in different perspectives from other nations. In making suggestions, destructive ones intended only to vent would fail the test of Habermas’s rationality, but constructive ones intended to stimulate netizens’ communication and help them reach consensus would prevail. Given the nature of anonymity without face-to-face interaction, online discussions presented an open platform for netizens to express their opinions (almost unregulated) and vent their feelings (uncontrolled). How to guide Chinese netizens to better utilize this unique platform of public opinion continues to be a challenge, especially when other viable channels to participate in public discussion and debate are lacking in China.

Bin Liang is Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. Further details about Professor Liang and Professor Liu's book can be found on the University of Michigan Press website here.


[i] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Vols. 1 & 2) (Beacon Press 1984/1987).

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