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Body Count Politics: Quantification, Secrecy, and Capital Punishment in China

  • Tobias Smith


As quantification has become socially ubiquitous, the disclosure of numerical data emerges as a key feature of legal reform and global governance. Scholars document how seemingly value-neutral statistical indicators shape, and are shaped by, institutional interests. Although less attention has been paid to cases where states resist numerical disclosure, prohibitions on the disclosure of such indicators also produce social effects. This article extends scholarship on the governance effects of quantification to include secrecy by exploring the case of capital punishment data in China, which is reportedly the world’s leading executioner state. Amid a major death penalty reform effort, China steadfastly refuses international calls to publicly disclose relevant statistics. I analyze capital cases and draw on seventy-three interviews with legal insiders in China’s death penalty system to identify the impact of state efforts to conceal capital punishment indicators while undertaking reforms in three areas: transparency; legal representation; and criminal procedure. I show how tension between the disclosure and nondisclosure of death penalty numbers does not simply suppress data; it also shapes and becomes data, influencing both policy and action in the legal sphere in ways that are seemingly far removed from quantification.



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The author thanks the Law & Social Inquiry Editorial Committee. The author also thanks Clark Bernier, Gregory Fayard, David Garland, Tom Gold, Mari Hirayama, Su Jiang, Johann Koehler, Mona Lynch, Jonathan Marshall, Bill McCarthy, Sally Engle Merry, Genevieve Painter, Daniel Pascoe, Breck Radulovic, Matthew Robertson, Willa Sachs, Christopher Schmidt, Jonathan Simon, Stephen Smith, Rachel Stern, Susan Trevaskes, Anjuli Verma, and Frank Zimring. Finally, the author thanks the many individuals in China who spoke to me confidentially. This work would not be possible without them.



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Body Count Politics: Quantification, Secrecy, and Capital Punishment in China

  • Tobias Smith


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