The Chinese government announced just days ago that defendants in serious pollution cases might end up facing the death penalty. This comes on the heels of a number of other reforms meant to tackle Chinaís air pollution crisis, including introducing a carbon tax and reducing the amount of damage that must be caused by a polluter before they can be prosecuted.
Itís easy to understand why the government is taking such an extreme stance when you look at what everyday life is like in many Chinese cities. (For a vivid illustration, check out the image above — an actual photo of smog over the Great Wall.) In a recent New York Times article, mothers in Beijing report that the air quality is so poor, their children are not allowed to play outside or visit friends. Schools are canceling sports activities and field trips to avoid exposure to the outside air — and installing air filters inside the buildings to help students breathe a little easier.
Not surprisingly, Chinese parents are getting fed up and threatening to move abroad if something doesnít change. Many foreign workers are either leaving the country or turning down lucrative positions that would require them to live in polluted areas — even when offered generous raises.
So far, itís unclear whether China will actually carry out the reforms its government has promised. Itís entirely possible this talk of instituting the death penalty is mostly for show, to reassure nervous citizens who are thinking of leaving the country.
Capital punishment isnít uncommon in China, which executes the highest number of people in the world each year — perhaps up to 5,000 a year. (The official numbers are a closely guarded state secret.) While most capital offenses involve violent crimes, a number of economic, political, and drug offenses also carry the death penalty. As you can probably imagine, human rights groups like Amnesty International are extremely critical of Chinaís widespread use of the death penalty.
At any rate, China isnít the only country thatís looked at the death penalty for polluters. Malaysian politicians proposed a similar law in 2006 to deal with cases of water contamination. However, critics were quick to point out that it was impossible to enforce — if a large corporation pollutes waterways, who will be punished? The president of the company? The entire board? Itís likely the same issues will prevent any serious punishment from being taken against Chinese polluters.
Photo credit: Thomas Galvez