Comparison of Capital Punishment in China and the United States

IDST 190 WordPress Assignment: Comparison of Capital Punishment in China and the United States

By: Andrew Phelan, Esten Walker, & Jennifer Zhou

The use of capital punishment worldwide is certainly on the decline, but in two of the most developed countries in the world, the United States and China, the death penalty is still heavily embedded in each respective justice system. This article will provide a background of the evolution of capital punishment in the U.S. and China, the science of varying methods, and its ethical implications.

The United States and China both have very different cultural evolutions in regards to capital punishment. The motivations behind each country’s usage of execution began entirely differently, however, in the modern age of capital punishment, the rationale of each country’s implementation is more closely aligned. Differences between Chinese and Western attitudes on the ethics of the death penalty stem from unique, deep-rooted value systems. In China, deterrence is the most important justification for the death penalty, whereas the U.S. typically supports it as a form of retribution. [8]

The history of capital punishment in the United States began as the Europeans colonized the new world. [4] [6] British influence is considered to be the foundation of capital punishment in the U.S., which entailed hangings for severe crimes such as spying and treason, or mundane offenses as minor as stealing. [4] As American society evolved and progressed, execution was popularized on plantations, and used for slaves who acted out or attempted escape. [6] More time passed, and the United States shifted from requiring capital punishment for certain crimes to a more discretionary approach, allowing the justice system to determine whether or not a crime committed merited capital punishment. [6] This change occurred around the 1830s, and was considered a “great reform”.

While the methods of execution have evolved since the 1830s, the basis of execution has not changed very much, and the legality and culture of the death penalty has been in question for centuries. Even today there is a large divide between those who feel it is just and those that do not, which is exemplified by the fact that the death penalty is illegal in 20 states and legal in 30 [7]. The feelings towards execution are largely state by state, and the constitutionality of the death penalty has arisen numerous times in the history of its usage in the United States.

The U.S., public opinion has been a fundamental ethical justification for retention of the death penalty. In the U.S., the “voice of the people” is not overlooked, and the existing liberal parliamentary democracy is attentive to public opinion for electoral reasons. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court views the public opinion as a barometer for deciding whether the death penalty violates “evolving standards of decency”. [12] Ellsworth and Gross predict that “if a clear majority of Americans comes to reject the capital punishment, the supreme Court, if not Congress and the state legislatures, will soon follow suit.” [5] In this sense, as long as citizens are educated and active on the matter of the death penalty, the democratic nature of the legal system seems, at least at surface level, ethically sound and justifiable.

Ethical debates in the U.S. have less to do with whether the act is right or wrong, and more to do with the efficacy of the method employed and the implications for the physician/administrator. [16] Lethal injection is the accepted method used for the death penalty. Since 2009, there has been criticism with a new drug substitute, midazolam, used in the three-drug lethal cocktail. It is association with botched executions. Jay Chapman, the father of the lethal injection, argues that the blame for botched executions lies with the individuals who administer the injections. [5] This puts a serious burden on the physician. Within the landscape of biomedicine, physicians are ethically directed to do no harm to their patients. Should physicians be prohibited and protected from participating in components of the death penalty? The question has garnered much attention and continues to be debated.

China’s practice of using the death penalty began much differently, as Chairman Mao Zedong implemented the death penalty as a means of squashing political upheaval. Zedong deployed capital punishment in the early 1950s as a populist tool for class struggle, political depression, and ideological control [12]. Mao viewed the counter-revolutionaries as enemies of the state and of the Mao regime. Because of this, the rebels were subject to the death penalty whereas the majority of the population could be treated with education or persuasion [11]. The penalties for a supporter of Mao were much less stringent than those of a counter-revolutionary who committed an equivalent crime.

Mao used execution as a political tool to scare those who did not align with his views out of acting. He used firing squads to intimidate his opposition and he viewed the death penalty as an instrument to building a stronger regime. The culture and public perception surrounding the death penalty was almost something of reverence. Mao was so successful at discouraging wrongful behavior with the use of the death penalty that when he died in 1976, crime was at such a low point in the China that people were able to leave doors unlocked with no fear of theft. [11] Mao’s executions were made public and transparent, another way that Mao ensured the majority did not revolt against his regime. [12]

Although China is not a democracy, the opinion of the masses has been used to reinforce implementation of the death penalty. Oberwittler and Qi argue: “The Chinese state provides a punitive culture to its citizens which contributes to and reinforces popular attitudes.” [12] China has a traditional belief that the death penalty can educate and deter people from committing crime. [8] Confucianism and Legalism are two prominent schools of thought in China which shape these punitive attitudes. [12] Confucianism emphasizes good morality as a way of reaping good behavior in society, and it is deemed useful for crime prevention. During early Chinese communist authority, minorities or opponents of the law were scrutinized and subjected to harsher punishments, including the death penalty. While civic engagement might keep the government accountable for corruption, in reality “it has also been detrimental to judicial and legislative efforts to restrain China’s profligate use of capital punishment as a sanction” in the sense that minorities are oppressed and the people are coerced into abiding by “strike hard” policies. [11]

On the other hand, Legalism highlights the need for harsh laws to limit chaos in society. In combination, these ideologies have bred a “strike hard” policy when it comes to criminal law. Multiple “strike hard” campaigns were launched in the late 1900s, and they used the death penalty as a threat against crime and aimed to instill fear in citizens not to disobey. But, it’s worth noting that the death penalty can be imposed on both violent crimes, like murder, and non-violent crimes such as economic malpractice.

In the post-Mao era, China pursued a path of “socialist modernization” and crime did pick up again, and China expanded its usage of the death penalty to dissuade illegal acts. China no longer saw the death penalty as a political tool, but a means of controlling the public and reducing crime. In 1979, China listed 28 capital offenses in its constitution. By 1995, China expanded the list of capital offenses to 74. In 2015, it was estimated that China authorized executions of four times more criminals than the rest of the world combined. With such a tight grip on media and public information, the Chinese government does not seem to get much pushback within its borders in connection to its abnormally high rate of execution, although information is difficult to obtain with regards to this topic. Defectors of China do indicate, however, that the death penalty is relatively accepted in China, and is simply a part of the culture. Laws are strict and heavily enforced, and many simply do not question and obey.

Places for potential ethical concern in China’s “strike hard” legal outlook have been met with current debates on what constitutes severe and swift punishment. [14] On January 1, 2007, the authority to review and approve all death sentences was given to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), after having previously resided in provincial courts. This change in authority has dramatically reduced the scale of the death penalty. The SPC intends to limit the death penalty to “all but the most egregious criminals” and is focusing on “balancing leniency and severity.” The problem now is defining which deaths are justified and which might be an over-extension of Chinese authoritative power.

While the ethical and cultural considerations drastically differ between the two countries, the science behind the executions is universal. Both China and the United States have the same process for lethal injection—a three-drug combination: Anesthetic (usually thiopental or pentobarbital), pancuronium bromide (usually Pavulon), and potassium chloride. The general anesthetic dosage is 3 grams. A normal dosage can make an adult lose consciousness in less than 30 seconds. Pavulon is a non-depolarizing muscle relaxant that blocks the delivery of acetylcholine at the intersection of neuromuscular ends, which causes contraction of muscle fibers; as non-depolarizing drugs prevent this. [4] A dose of Pavulon in a fatal injection is usually 40 mg and the duration of muscle relaxation is about 4-8 hours. Paralysis of the respiratory muscles will cause death in a much shorter period of time. [4] The last step is to inject potassium chloride.  Potassium chloride stimulates the heart muscle, and the heart beats quickly, causing other drugs to quickly spread throughout the body, helping accelerate the medical effect. [4]

Before the execution process, the prisoner is taken into the executive room and the executor attaches the prisoner to the injection bed. Then, the executor connects him/her to the heart-rate-measuring instrument. First, the practitioner plunges the needle connected to the syringe pump, into the venous blood vessels of the prisoner. Then, the executor adjusts the syringe pump appropriately. After the execution order is issued, the executor presses the injection button on the syringe pump and the drug begins to be injected into the prisoner. Soon, the brain waves on the computer display changes from regular fluctuations to several parallel lines. [18] Finally, the forensic doctor confirms the death of the prisoner according to the heartbeat and breathing. [18]

Most of society agrees that lethal injection is the most “humane” method of execution, so it became common in many states. However, the lethal injection method is facing a problem: drug shortage. Many drug manufacturers stopped selling these drugs for use in executions because they think lethal injections “create an unacceptable risk of severe pain”. As mentioned earlier, some drugs, like midazolam, are sometimes insufficient. Botched executions are always a possibility given the limitations of the efficacy of the drugs at hand. [5] States have continued to search for different drugs to safely replace the cocktail of euthanasia drugs which exist today. [10]

In the U.S., states have responded to the drug shortage by listing alternative execution methods. While no state has actually had to use any of the alternative methods this century, it is still important to be cognizant of their inclusion in the law. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia currently list the electric chair as an alternative method of execution, even though it is not practiced. [13]

There are four steps for the electric chair execution: preparation, confirmation of execution, electrocution, and corpse treatment. Preparation usually starts in the early hours of the morning. The prisoner is brought up from the death row, bathed and shaved where the electrode will be placed during execution. Under normal circumstances, the calf should be shaved to ensure the smooth flow of current. The electric chair is made of wood with a belt to secure the prisoner. The prisoner sits on the chair and the wrist is fixed on the armrest of the chair.  The legs, waist, chest, chin, and forehead will also be strapped to the electric chair. The electrode above the electric chair is pulled down, covering the prisoner’s head, and fixed by a belt that holds the prisoner’s chin. The prisoner’s shaved calf was also fastened to the electrode. [4] During the electrocution, the executioner energizes the electric chair and the first current passes through the prisoner, with voltage between 1700 and 2400 volts. [19] The electric current lasts 15 to 60 seconds (depending on the state) and uses between 5 and 8 amps. It passes through the brain and completely destroys the nerve system within 1/240 seconds of energization, causing the prisoner to fall into a coma and not feel the subsequent pain prior to death. After a complete electric shock process, a doctor checks the prisoner’s vital signs. If the prisoner still shows signs of life, the entire electric shock process is repeated until the prisoner displays no signs of life. After the execution, the prisoner’s skin becomes red, and some parts are slightly burned. At this time, the temperature of the body can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so the body cannot be transported immediately after the shock is administered. [19]

In China, gun firing squad was the only nationally endorsed method of execution until 1997, when the lethal injection was introduced. Shootings were somewhat of a political spectacle, they are inexpensive, and are also highly effective at executing criminals. Moreover, public executions helped reinforce the punitive culture associated with the Chinese legal system. In contrast, the cost of a single injection is significantly more expensive than shooting, and the resources required are extensive. Many intermediate courts do not have a complete executive room and vehicle. Therefore, in some Chinese provinces, the death penalty is still dominated by shooting. Firing squad is largely utilized as punishment for major crimes such as murder, extortion, rape, and drug trafficking, as well as other criminal laws that endanger the country and its people. [16] These crimes qualify for firing squad execution because of their extremely cruel nature and social impact. [16]

There are two firing squad execution methods. In the first method, the prisoner squats against the executioner and the executioner shoots at the prisoner’s head or the back of the heart. If shot in the head, a person’s brain tissue will be damaged beyond function, and the brain cannot convey essential activities to the rest of the body. [4] When a prisoner is shot in the heart, their body no longer has the ability to transfer blood and the body shuts down. [4] The second method is where the prisoner stands and faces the executioner. The executioner then shoots the prisoner in the chest, most commonly the heart, and the result is the same as method one. The body can no longer transfer blood and the victim passes. For both methods, if the prisoner has not yet died, he/she will be shot at the critical body part until he/she dies. In the process, the prisoner will suffer excruciating pain which is the downside of the gun fire squad method. [17]

Culturally, the United States has softened slightly as time has gone on, and the harshness of the means of death has been lessened. From the beginning, public hanging was seen as a legitimate means of sending a message as well as fair retribution for those who committed criminal acts [4]. Later on, certain states began using the electric chair. Still painful, but it was quick and executions no longer took place in the public realm. Cyanide and gas chambers became an option in the early 1920s, and were introduced by the Nevada justice system [4]. This was thought to be more humane than the electric chair, but still was not necessarily void of  “cruel and unusual punishment” as one California court described. By the late 1970s, all states where execution was legal mandated lethal injection as the more humane and effective way of killing criminals, but this is still a controversial means of execution because of conflicts with many doctors’ code of ethics. [3]

Conversely, China’s execution methods have remained fairly consistent over time, reflecting the importance the Chinese place on appropriate behavior and attention to laws and regulations. Since the 1950s when capital punishment was instituted in China, its purposes and cultural meanings did change slightly, however, the methodology only evolved when science offered an opportunity to do so. One important consideration is that China does not have the multi-century history that the United States does when examining the use of the death penalty.

Generally, one could argue that the Chinese evolution of capital punishment is similar to the United States, just hundreds of years behind. The United States was slightly less political in its approach to public execution, however, hanging is arguably a more aggressive and harsh means of killing an outlaw. Mao’s usage of the firing squad was public and cruel, but was largely used for political purposes. As each country moved towards the 21st century, lethal injection was at the forefront of execution methods, considered to be humane, painless, and effective. Nonetheless, the ethical implications and feelings of killing another human being are still hotly debated. The United States is very open about the controversy, whereas China is quiet and cryptic, especially with such a tight grip on censorship and public record. As society expands and advances, the topic of capital punishment will surely continue to be contested, and the future of the death penalty could certainly be in jeopardy, but until nationally supported execution is abolished across the world, the scientific, ethical, and cultural questions will remain.


[1]Barnes, Dustin. “What Methods of Execution Are Still in Practice in the United States?” The Tennessean. Accessed April 8, 2019.

[2]Caplan, Arthur L. “Finding a Solution to the Organ Shortage.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal 188, no. 16 (November 1, 2016): 1182–83.

[3]Cheng, Jesse. “HUMANITY’S SUBTENSIONS: Culture Theory in US Death Penalty Mitigation.” Social Analysis; Oxford 61, no. 3 (Autumn 2017): 73–90.

[4]“Descriptions of Execution Methods | Death Penalty Information Center.” Accessed April 8, 2019.

[5] Ellsworth, P.C., & Gross, S.R. (1994). Hardening of the attitudes: Americans’ views on the death penalty. Journal of Social Science, 50, 19-52.

[6] Garland, David. “The Cultural Uses of Capital Punishment.” Punishment & Society 4, no. 4    (October 1, 2002): 459–87.

[7]Hood, Roger, and Carolyn Hoyle. The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. OUP Oxford, 2015.

[8]Jiang, Shanhe, Eric G. Lambert, and Jin Wang. “Capital Punishment Views in China and the United States: A Preliminary Study Among College Students.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 51, no. 1 (February 2007): 84–97.

[9]Kunter, Max. “Meet A. Jay Chapman, ‘Father of the Lethal Injection.’” Accessed April 8, 2019.

[10]Levine, Caroline. “State Resources and Compliance with the Eighth Amendment.” The Federal Lawyer State & Local Government (February 2016).

[11]Miao, Michelle. “Capital Punishment in China: A Populist Instrument of Social Governance.” Theoretical Criminology 17, no. 2 (May 1, 2013): 233–50.

[12]Qi, Shenghui, and Dietrich Oberwittler. “On the Road to the Rule of Law: Crime, Crime Control, and Public Opinion in China.” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 15, no. 1 (June 1, 2009): 137–57.

[13]“State by State Lethal Injection | Death Penalty Information Center.” Accessed April 8, 2019.

[14]Trevaskes, Susan. “The Death Penalty in China Today: Kill Fewer, Kill Cautiously.” Asian Survey; Berkeley 48, no. 3 (June 2008): 393–413.

[15]Whalen, Jeanne, and Nathan Koppel. “Lundbeck Seeks to Curb Use of Drug in Executions.” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2011, sec. Business.

[16]Zivot, Joel B. “The Absence of Cruelty Is Not the Presence of Humanness: Physicians and the Death Penalty in the United States.” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 7, no. 1 (December 3, 2012): 13.  .

[17]“在中国,死刑犯都是怎么死的?.” 知乎专栏. Accessed April 8, 2019.

[18]“枪毙_百度百科.” Accessed April 8, 2019.

[19]“注射死刑_百度百科.” Accessed April 8, 2019.

[20]“电椅(刑具)_百度百科.” Accessed April 8, 2019.


  1. It’s interesting to note the differences in opinion that occur when a government is democratic versus communist. Ruled by a dictator, communist China freely killed people that opposed the law in some way, according to this post. In comparison, America, a democratic country, put the criminal on trial before determining whether or not they would take the person’s life.

  2. I really enjoyed the information about Chinese practices and was surprised to find out that the death penalty can be used for things such as economic malpractice. I cannot imagine living in a society that uses the death penalty as a punishment for all types of crimes and is used as a scare tactic to the people. I am curious if the Chinese method of shooting is still a public spectacle or is now done more privately?

  3. I appreciated that with each country, there was a history perspective on how the death penalty began in that region. It is surprising how two different types of governments, but both developed countries, utilize the death penalty. I believe that if these two countries begin to decline their use of death penalty or even abolish it, other countries will follow. The above comment by jkwalia gives insight to the fact that even though in America the criminal is put on trial before determining taking their life, we still have to remember that it does not really make America any better than China because the death penalty is still applied. This post is a really good detailed perspective of the post Hanging, Electrocution, and Shooting: Death Penalty Methods Compared. The latter post just compared the method shooting in China and electrocution in the U.S. before both countries switched to lethal injection. Overall, the post was good but one edit could be to add the pictures within the text and not after the citations.

  4. I thought you did a great job with integration, and I liked how you included the history of capital punishment for both countries. I do wish you included more media; however, I thought it was interesting how capital punishment in China was kind of mirroring the practice in the US. Your ethical perspective of doctors administering the lethal injections reminded me of the article my group had to do about Healthcare Serial Killers. These types of healthcare professionals also often use a lethal combination of drugs to help kill their patients, alleviating their pain. It is interesting to see that with capital punishment, lethal injections is the most humane and painless way of killing prisoners, when HSKs believe they use it to help their patients.

  5. This was a fascinating article. I found your descriptions of the different common execution methods utilized particularly informative, as it helped contextualize the data about each country. You mentioned that the firing squad was the only method of execution in China until 1997; I will also note that three states still allow firing squad as an alternate method of execution. The latest execution by firing squad in the United States was in 1996–the condemned man actually requested it as a protest to the fact that the state of Utah was, in his belief, committing murder by having the death penalty.

  6. I find it very interesting that the United States and China have such different values and cultures, yet the death penalty is most heavily embedded in both of their justice systems. As the colonies were formed under British rule, it makes sense that the United States derives its use of capital punishment from the British system. It is also important to note that capital punishment was heavily used for its deterrent effect, as this type of a punishment was a way to deter others from committing the same crimes and maintaining order in the nation. I also like how your post goes into detail about the differences in methods of the death penalty between China and the US. I am shocked that gun firing squad was the only nationally endorsed method of execution until 1997, that seems so late in terms of scientific advancement. I really liked the way your post compared the death penalty in China and the United States, a very cool approach to use.

  7. Madison Bencini

    April 24, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    I really liked your comparison between the use of the death penalty in the United States versus China. You stated that China has used the death penalty to squash political resistance. I think you could argue that the United States uses the death penalty for the same reason. The use of capital punishment is unfairly given to minorities who are incarcerated at extremely high levels. In order to oppress vulnerable populations, the United States has continued its use of capital punishment. I found this post to be extremely informative and well-constructed.

  8. The post describes that the United States shifted in culture to allow the justice system to determine whether or not a crime committed a merited capital punishment, however I would inquire as to what would happens when instead the public takes the capital punishment into their own hands – and if there are any cultures where this happens.

    I found it extremely interesting that the death penalty within the United States was still so polarizing being that 20 states outlaw the use of the death penalty. I wonder if these states ever had a death penalty and if so, if there was ever a culture shift to push towards making it illegal.

    The difference in utilization of the death penalty between the nations (the United states being as retribution, and China being formerly used as a political tool), reminds me of the perceptions of suicide in Sir Lanka. In being that people in Sir Lanka perceived protest suicides as ‘good suicides’ [meaning justified] and mental health suicides as ‘bad suicides’ [meaning not justified]. The opposite being true for the United States where mental health suicides were seen as justified and protest suicides seen as not justified. The connection being that the Chinese people viewed the political utilization of the death penalty as a good use where the united states perception of that would be an unjustifiable use.

    In reviewing the history and evolutions of methods and public opinions of the death penalty within the United States, so many cultural shifts towards a more ‘humane’ death have happened. I wonder if this trend keeps increasing, if the death penalty will one day be outlawed and seen as inhumane as a whole.

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