By Gary Rawnsley.

On 7 December 2012, Amnesty International called on Taiwan’s government to resist public pressure to reinstate the death penalty. This comes after a 10 year old boy was murdered in Tainan at the beginning of December and claims that the murderer is not afraid because of Taiwan’s retreat from enforcing capital punishment. Several demonstrations called for the murderer to be executed and the Ministry of Justice has said that ‘executions must be carried out’ but has not yet set a date.

A marker of a civilisation is how people are treated: children, the sick, the elderly, victims of crimes and the criminals themselves. While the trauma that victims and their families experience should be neither forgotten nor ignored, a civilised society also avoids murdering the perpetrators.

This is a moral argument, but morals also provide society with an extraordinary amount of soft power capital.

My core belief about Taiwan’s soft power strategy is that it emphasises the wrong story: the narratives of Taiwan’s successful democratisation and its current position as the first Chinese democracy are routinely ignored in favour of attempts to label Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. However, there is a significant flaw in my argument to which I need to draw attention, and that flaw is the continued use of the death penalty.

A report by the BBC earlier this year (link to the source) highlighted how Taiwan’s judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever). While this is hardly unique to Taiwan – all countries which maintain the death penalty risk making mistakes in sentencing the innocent to such a fate – this practice does constrain Taiwan’s image as a maturing democracy and as a contrast to the PRC. Criticism by important organisations such as the European Union, and Amnesty International, more used to pointing the finger at the PRC than at Taiwan, has damaged its soft power.

However, I would suggest that what is more worrying than the fact that Taiwan maintains this barbaric practice, is that the political elites fear the wrath of public opinion should they decide to abolish the death penalty. Just because ‘surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it’ does not make it right; sometimes leaders have to lead against public opinion – that is as much a characteristic of democracy as following it, and the government must respond carefully but with authority to the current demonstrations in favour of the death penalty. President Ma Ying-jeou, a keen advocate of ‘Soft power’, ended a short three year moratorium (2006-9) and appointed Justice Tseng Yung-fu who ordered four people executed in 2010 and a further five in 2011. 15 convicts were sentenced to death at the Supreme Court last year. It is to Taiwan’s credit that although these convicts were sentenced, no-one has been executed in 2012. Most worrying is that there is no procedure that allows for anyone sentenced to death to seek a pardon or for the sentence to be commuted. This is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the Legislative Yuan has voted to implement. Again, the victim is Taiwan’s international reputation as a democratic political system.

There are now 61 inmates serving time on death row. If Taiwan really wants to project itself as a benevolent democracy – and to provide an alternative to authoritarian rule in the PRC – then the complete abolition of the death penalty despite public opinion may just help elevate its international image and thus gather for Taiwan a little more support, respect and sympathy.

Gary D. Rawnsley is non-residential Senior Fellow in CPI.  Click here to visit his personal blog.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. Thanks this provides very interesting insights and critical analysis. It would be interesting to know how and whether academics are making such representations as this, informing in a critical way, which seems less confrontational and perhaps more helpful than Amnesty, for example. This blog is an example, but I wonder how such representations can be put to those they are directed towards informing.

  2. Hello! I am a Taiwanese. Thanks for your advice for Taiwan government’s execution of the death penalty. But “A report by the BBC earlier this year (link to the source) highlighted how Taiwan’s judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever” is not true. As we know, the unfair judiciary just past. Now, in Taiwan, people who be judged “death penalty” need a lot judge process, convict could use many legal way to ask more accurate trial, reach the fair result. As we know, the injustice cases in past decade, just two case(江國慶and蘇建和).So, please respect Taiwanese’s public opinion.
    In the other way,indeed more than 80% of the public support for the death penalty in Taiwan,but you have ever thought about why so? A reason for “TAEDP” active,didn’t make people feel trust and safe, they always cry for murderer, and ask victims forgive murderer with the cruel word.They didn’t give people perfect proposal to believe we could revoke penalty.
    Thank you for your advice.

    1. Hi Maggie, thanks for your response. I am not sure why you claim that mistakes are not made. Throughout the world some so-called criminals have always been sentenced to death on unreliable evidence and despite a rigorous judicial process. Mistakes happened in the UK and the US – just as they happen in Taiwan; and this is part of the problem with maintaining the death penalty. I do respect Taiwanese public opinion, but please do not confuse respecting public opinion with democracy. Democracy does not mean following public opinion; it does not mean simply putting in place whatever the people demand, otherwise there is a danger of the tyranny of the majority, even mob rule. Democracy sometimes means exercising firm leadership to do what is right, and that can often mean going against public opinion. You say there are ‘just two cases’ of injustice; isn’t that too many, and doesn’t it mean the whole process should be questions? The main thrust of my argument is about Taiwan’s soft power, its image and ability to project a particular image of itself abroad. Today the BBC is reporting about Taiwan in the UK because of the executions; would it not be better if the BBC was reporting more positive stories about Taiwan? Surely the government would send a signal – to the world and the PRC – about Taiwan’s progress and humanity if it revoked this barbaric practice and not simply give in to public opinion? Thanks for reading.

  3. I’m from Taiwan, too. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint on death penalty in Taiwan. However, there are some points I want to point out. I don’t think what you mentioned

    Taiwan’s judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence

    is true. Of course, the case you mentioned is true, and it was a tremendous shame on Taiwan’s judiciary history. Since then, our judiciary treated every case with extreme prudence, and we’ve done all we possible we could to avoid death penalty. In fact, A criminal committing homicide, and thus prone to death sentence could simply free from it by saying:”I’m sorry and feel deeply regret to what I have done” to judges after his or her deranging deeds. Sadly, all the criminals executed in Taiwan were not showing the tiniest regret or just simply saying sorry until they were placed in front of the muzzle. Personally, I think Taiwan is exceptionally careful when dealing with death sentences.

    I respect human rights too, but I don’t think death penalty a wrong thing to do. Admittedly, anyone committing malicious deeds could one day filled with remorse for wrongdoing, determined to spend rest of his or her life contributing to the society, and eventually becomes a great guy benefiting the world, so it would be such a cruelty to deprive this life. However, this does not justify removing the death penalty, since it is the only way to let those wrongdoers realize each life is of same importance; once taken, it would never be brought back. Death sentence is not reprisal, but a means enabling the wrongdoers to comprehend what they have done and truly face their callous murder.

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