The Great Cultural Divide: The Chinese View of Punishment

Mark Bennett, the Texas Tornado, posted about Japanese Justice, an oxymoron to my American sensibilities.  It reminded me of a fascinating meeting that I was a part of with a criminal Judge from China.

The Chinese judge had come to the United States as part of a legal exchange program, where he was to learn about the American way and share with us the Chinese way.  In New York, he was to meet with a delegation from the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. 

At the last minute, the president asked me if I would be part of the delegation, since some others begged off and it left past-president Larry Goldman essentially the sole member of the New York delegation.  The idea of Larry on his own with a representative of a foreign government had broad international relations implications, so I felt compelled to join him.

The Chinese judge spoke no English, but had an interpreter with a finely honed sense of humor to help him.  During the course of our discussions, the judge reluctantly expressed his view that the death penalty was more humane than life in prison.  His reluctance was due to his recognition that American’s often feel the opposite, and he did not want to appear confrontational.

But neither Larry nor I would take offense at a different point of view.  The judge explained that Chinese prisons were not the most user-friendly places.  In fact, they were horrible, and perfectly suited to the desire for retribution and little else.  But also, the judge’s attitude was framed by the fact that China is so heavily populated that life is, well, relatively cheap.  China had numerous policies that impacted on life, from limiting “needless” childbirth to shipping their extras off to child-less Americans.  It was hard for the Chinese to get all that worked up about an execution.

Then Larry chimed in, as only Larry could, to express that he did NOT disagree with the judge’s basic premise, and in fact he too would prefer the death penalty over life in prison.  He explained that the idea of spending the rest of his life behind bars was so terrible to him that a swift, painless death seemed preferable.  But he quickly added, ever the statesman, the I would no doubt disagree.

To Goldman’s surprise, I quickly responded, “Absolutely not Larry.  If the choice was whether to put you in prison for the rest of your life of put you to death, I’m behind your execution 100%.”

The Chinese judge, about 30 second after the interpreter was able to stop laughing and catch his breath, started laughing uproariously.  Lawyers.  We are a fun bunch, no?