The handing down of a suspended death sentence to China's former railways minister Liu Zhijun for corruption this week has sparked anger and ridicule, with many commentators calling for the abolition of a death penalty they say is almost never handed to corrupt officials these days.
Liu was handed the sentence by the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on Monday for bribe-taking and abuse of power, official media reported.
The sentence is the similar to that handed to Gu Kailai, wife of Chongqing's disgraced former Chinese Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, for her role in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood and has sparked speculation that Bo, currently being investigated at a secret location for "serious violations" of Party discipline, is unlikely to receive a heavy penalty either.
Liu was also handed a 10-year jail term for "abuse of power," had his personal property confiscated for "bribe-taking," and was deprived of his political rights for life, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Death penalty a curb to corruption
Shenzhen-based lawyer Fan Biaowen said the sentence had made a nonsense of the death penalty in China, which currently executes more people annually than the rest of the world put together, according to Amnesty International.
"If they're not going to sentence someone like Liu Zhijun to death, then they may as well abolish the death penalty in China," Fan said. "Otherwise, it is basically just a system that targets ordinary people."
"This sentence basically means that corrupt officials needn't fear execution."
While the death penalty still has widespread public support in China, it is generally because people see it as a valuable curb to official abuse of power.
Meanwhile, author Li Chengpeng listed via his account on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service a string of recent cases in which those in power had been found guilty of serious wrongdoing and then handed a suspended death sentence, which gives the authorities freedom to release a person from prison after the suspension period is up for "good behavior."
"People are talking about abolishing the death penalty," Li wrote. "But it would be better to abolish the suspended death sentence."
Clampdown on corruption
President Xi Jinping has warned that the Communist Party must beat graft or lose power, sparking a nationwide clampdown on corruption.
However, political analysts say that officials with friends in the right places are unlikely to be touched by the crackdown, and reports suggest many are liquidating their assets and making moves overseas.
In July 2007, Beijing executed the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), Zheng Xiayou, for dereliction of duty and taking bribes.
Zheng was convicted of taking the money to approve a series of fake drugs that caused illness and death to many people.
But critics say the harsh penalty has done little to stem the ongoing flood of consumer safety scandals in recent years.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.