Within the same March afternoon that a four-year-old girl in Taipei was decapitated within an arm’s reach from her mother, the public called for the killer’s execution. The furor over the little girl’s death heightened following two other unrelated stabbing incidents the next day, and death penalty advocates and politicians were eager to use the anger and fear that saturated the entire island to further their own causes.
Smelling blood and the prospect of political gains, officials from the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, leaped on the chance to demonstrate that the general population supports their stance on the death penalty, and not that of the more liberal Democratic Progressive Party. Several politicians came forward to call for an expansion of the list of crimes punishable by death, an opinion that had fallen out of favor – to some extent – with the ending of martial law and years of a temporary, de facto moratorium on capital punishment under the DPP-controlled government.
If Taiwan was to apply capital punishment more broadly, in no way would it be an outlier in the region. While globally there has been a general trend towards abolishing the death penalty, much of Asia remains a committed user. Reasons for this are country specific, though this is not to say there haven’t been attempts to connect the use of capital punishment in Asia to a cultural propensity for punitive measures, a preference for acting in the collective interest rather than upholding the rights of an individual, and an affinity for “big brother” style governance (Singapore is a classic example).
As a brief aside note, however, the correlation between specifically Chinese culture and punitive measures rests on shaky grounds since the death penalty is broadly applied by many countries in Asia, and not just Chinese ones. Also, before we get into dangerous territory and assume there’s a propensity towards punishment within Asian culture, let’s not forget that the abolition of the death penalty in western countries really is a new development. France only officially abolished the use of the guillotine in the 1980s, and the US states of Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia executed more people last year than Taiwan has in the past four years.
Anyway, back to the point. If based on just a simple observation of the region, it’s not strange for a country in Asia to support the death penalty. What is strange is that support of the death penalty in Taiwan is so strong, despite how it’s characteristic of authoritarian countries – something that Taiwan tries so hard not to be.
Taiwan’s efforts to move away from the death penalty in the past were an attempt to abide by international human rights standards. In placing a pseudo moratorium on the procedure between 2006 and 2010, Taiwan was supporting the liberal democratic idea that the right to life is a fundamental human right, aligning itself with the modern moral values of most democratic countries globally (there are obvious outliers: Indonesia, Japan and the United States, to name a few).
A jump back towards executing prisoners, as Taiwan most recently did in 2015 following the murder of an 8-year-old girl at her school, is to align with the policies of the likes of authoritarian Vietnam or Singapore, who do not care what the international community thinks (and have the luxury of doing so because of their undeniable sovereignty). Authoritarian countries are more likely to use force to ensure their legitimacy. They make no apologies for sanctioning capital punishment, seeing the sacrifice of so-called “universal liberties” a matter of necessity in order to ensure stability, safety or the ruling party’s political security.
Moreover, Taiwanese people should be concerned that there isn’t any kind of legal standard when it comes to how the death penalty is applied. In 2014 Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice ordered a very sudden execution of individuals on death row. The then-Minister of Justice was quoted in a China Post article as saying that she would order executions “when necessary,” whatever that means. The sort of arbitrariness that colors the laws governing capital punishment in Taiwan allows decisions dictating the right-to-end-a-life to rest on the ever-changing, emotionally-charged views of the public rather some kind of definitive legal procedure. And, it gives politicians an argument they can utilize each time the same type of terrible tragedy occurs so that they can advance their own political agendas.
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president elect, has largely avoided the topic of capital punishment, although her party, the DPP, has long been a supporter of abolition. After last week’s incidents though, it may just be the public that leads the way once again through their fervent calls for a man’s execution.
These public views lay testimony to the fact that fundamentally Taiwan is extremely contradictory; a neo-Confucian country that’s been trying to retain the essence of some inherited Chinese values, but build a government based on western ideology. It’s a balance analogous to the precarious position it holds between two very intimidating great powers across the Pacific. Taiwan wants to be democratic, all the while seemingly unsure of, or misinterpreting what sustaining a democracy encompasses.
A strong democracy requires a judiciary independent from the people and politicians – one whose basic function is, of course, to consider majority interests, but also to represent minority interests. Perhaps most importantly, a judiciary’s main function is to preserve basic human rights as dictated by liberal democratic values. Taiwan’s justice system mirrors the façade of many houses in the Taipei – a jumble of wires and pipes reflecting shoddy, quick-fix workmanship. Instead of interpreting the law, the courts merely use it to curry favor.
Taiwan’s indecisiveness over capital punishment reflects a country at a political crossroads. In light of the recent stabbings, Taiwan has gone back to the same questions it’s always had post-attack: the pros and cons of the death penalty and the need for a more comprehensive mental health system. But what’s really at stake in all of these debates is Taiwan’s political direction. There’s a strong need for not only a just judicial system, but most importantly, a democratic and systematic judicial system in Taiwan that acts as a balance to the public’s whims and fancies, as well as other branches of government. How Taiwan chooses to go forward from here will say a lot about Taiwan’s commitment to building a liberal democracy.
(Feature photo of Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan Constitutional Court, by Jiang, from Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
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