What makes a penal system ‘harsh’? Can penal severity be compared across time and place? In the case of China, the question of how to evaluate relative severity in punishment is not just methodological; it is also political. This essay discusses why this type of comparison is sensitive, and why nonetheless it is not possible to avoid talking about it. The article suggests a variety of approaches for assessing penal severity in China, and cautions against relying on any one of them.