China dropped the death penalty for more than a dozen nonviolent crimes Friday and banned capital punishment for people over the age of 75 in largely symbolic moves that are not expected to significantly reduce executions.
China executes more people than any other country, and critics say too many crimes are punishable by death.
The official Xinhua News Agency said it was the first time the Communist government has reduced the number of crimes subject to the death penalty since 1979. The newly revised Criminal Law comes into effect May 1.
But an expert said the move was unlikely to significantly reduce executions, since people convicted of those crimes in the past have rarely received the maximum penalty and capital punishment can still be used to punish other economic crimes such as corruption.
"The big obstacle, I think, is corruption. Because there still is a very strong sense that corrupt officials must die among the Chinese population at large," said Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation. "The revulsion for that offense is so strong that there would be a potential political cost to eliminating the death penalty for corruption."
Official statistics on executions are considered state secrets but the Dui Hua Foundation estimates that China put 5,000 people to death in 2009.
Thirteen economic, nonviolent offenses will be removed from the list of 68 crimes punishable by death, said Lang Sheng, who heads a legal committee for the National People's Congress, China's legislature. The 13 crimes include forging and selling invoices to avoid taxes, and smuggling cultural relics and precious metals such as gold out of the country.
Lang told a briefing in Beijing that abolishing capital punishment for the elderly was done "to demonstrate the spirit of humanity." However, the amendment excludes anyone who commits murder with "exceptional cruelty." Previously, only minors under age 18 and pregnant women were exempt from capital punishment, Xinhua said.
Legal authorities have sought to stamp out abuses of the death penalty, particularly by demanding that all death sentences be reviewed by the supreme court. They have also called for the penalty to be imposed only in the most extreme cases, although the punishment has wide public support in China.
Lang noted that the changes reduced the number of crimes punishable by death by nearly one-fifth, to 55, and said the government would consider further revisions in the future.
Other changes to the criminal law passed Friday include imposing the death penalty for organ traffickers by allowing them to be prosecuted for homicide. Organ transplantation in China has long been criticized as profit-driven and unethical. In 2009, China launched a national organ donation system aimed at reducing its dependence on death row inmates for organs.
The committee also widened the scope of punishment for subversion to include the funding of domestic and foreign groups to commit crimes that endanger national security. It approved stiffer penalties for food safety violations, and made it a crime for employers to hold back workers' wages.