Capital punishment in China

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Capital punishment in the People's Republic of China is usually administered to offenders of serious and violent crimes, such as aggravated murder, but China retains in law a number of nonviolent capital offenses such as drug trafficking. The People's Republic of China executes the highest number of people annually, though other countries (such as Iran or Singapore) have higher per capita execution rates.[1] Watchdog groups believe that actual execution numbers greatly exceed officially recorded executions; in 2008, 2009, and 2010, the Dui Hua Foundation estimated that 5,000 people were executed each year in China – far more than all other nations combined.[2] [1][3] [4] However, the estimated number of executions fell to 2,400 in 2013.[5] The precise number of executions is regarded as a state secret.[6] Since the formation of the People's Republic of China in the 1940s, there have also been foreigners executed in China, including people from Western nations. All classes of society in China have been executed, there have been no exceptions. Recently, a billionaire in China was executed for running a criminal gang.[7]

PRC authorities have recently been pursuing measures to reduce the official number of crimes punishable by death, and limit how often the death penalty is officially utilized. In 2011, the National People's Congress Standing Committee adopted an amendment to reduce the number of capital crimes from 68 to 55.[8] Later the same year, the Supreme People's Court ordered lower courts to suspend death sentences for two years and to "ensure that it only applies to a very small minority of criminals committing extremely serious crimes. In practice, China traditionally uses the firing squad as its standard method of execution. However in recent years, China has adopted lethal injection as its sole method of execution, though execution by firing squad can still be administered. ”[9]

Capital punishment is one of the classical Five Punishments of China's dynastic period. In Chinese philosophy, capital punishment was supported by the Legalists but its application was tempered by the Confucianists, who preferred rehabilitation over punishment, let alone capital punishment. In Communist philosophy, Vladimir Lenin advocated the retention of the death penalty, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed that the practice was "feudal" and a symbol of "capitalist oppression". Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and his government somewhat glorified, to an extent, the death penalty's transient place in the legal system, while advocating that it be used for a limited number of counterrevolutionaries. The market reformer Deng Xiaoping after him stressed that the practice must not be abolished, and advocated its wider use against recidivists and corrupt officials. Leaders of China's minor, non-communist parties have also advocated for a wider use of the death penalty. Both Deng and Mao viewed the death penalty as having tremendous popular support, and portrayed the practice as a means "to assuage the people's anger".

Capital punishment has widespread support in China, especially for violent crimes, and no group in government or civil society vocally advocates for its abolition.[10] Surveys conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1995, for instance, found that 95 percent of the Chinese population supported the death penalty, and these results were mirrored in other studies.[11] Polling conducted in 2007 in Beijing, Hunan and Guangdong found a more moderate 58 percent in favor of the death penalty, and further found that a majority (63.8 percent) believed that the government should release execution statistics to the public.[12]

During the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee it was announced that China will reduce the number of crimes subject to death penalty "step by step".[13]

Legal procedure

After a first trial conducted by an intermediate people's court concludes with a death sentence, a double appeals process must follow. The first appeal is conducted by a high people's court if the condemned appealed to it, and since 2007, another appeal is conducted automatically (even if the condemned oppose the first appeal) by the Supreme People's Court of the People's Republic of China (SPC) in Beijing,[14] to prevent the awkward circumstances in which the defendant is proved innocent after the death penalty - an obviously irrevocable punishment - has been administered.

When a case involving the death penalty is sent to the SPC for mandatory review, the case is delivered to one of the court’s five divisions according to the geographic origin of the case or, in some cases, the type of crime involved.[15] The SPC's second criminal division is dedicated to handling review of some of the most sensitive cases.[16] Each case is then assigned to a panel of three judges, one of whom is designated as the principal case manager.[17] Since 2012, judges are also required to interview defendants before deciding whether or not to confirm a death sentence.[18] The judges write reports summarizing the case, discuss the case, and then report the decision to the division head, SPC vice president, and finally the SPC president.[19]

If the lower court death sentence is upheld, the execution is carried out shortly thereafter and is fairly automated. As a result of its reforms, the PRC's government claims, the Supreme People's Court overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences handed down by high courts in the first half of 2008. In a brief report in May, Xinhua quoted anonymous sources as saying Chinese courts handed down 30 percent fewer death sentences in 2007 compared with 2006.[1]

The cases of Li Yan (2014) and Wu Ying (2012) are two examples in which the Supreme People's Court reversed a death sentence pronounced by lower courts.[20]

Chinese courts hand down the sentence of "death sentence with two years' probation" (Chinese: 死缓; pinyin: sǐ huǎn) as frequently as, or more often than,[14] they do actual death sentences. This unique sentence is used to emphasize the seriousness of the crime and the mercy of the court, and has a centuries-old history in Chinese jurisprudence.[10] It almost always reduced to life or 10–15 years imprisonment if no new crime is intentionally committed during the two year probationary period.[10]

Article 49 in the Chinese criminal code explicitly forbids the death penalty for offenders who are under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.[21] The SPC also issued a policy in 2007 which required lower courts to arrange for the visitation of condemned criminals by relatives; forbade the practice by local authorities of parading prisoners on death row; and required that executions be publicly announced.[14]

However, capital punishment in China can be politically or socially influenced. In 2003, a local court sentenced the leader of a triad society to a death sentence with two years of probation. However, the public opinion was that the sentence was too light. Under public pressure, the Supreme People's Court took the case and retried the leader, resulting in a death sentence which was carried out immediately.[22]

Since 1980, the state's security apparatus has initiated various "strike hard" (Chinese: 严打; pinyin: Yándǎ) campaigns against specific types of crime. Critics have noted that the campaigns lead to the streamlining of capital cases, where cases are investigated, appeals heard, and sentences carried out at rates much more rapidly than normal. Since 2006, Chinese Supreme Court justice Xiao Yang has worked to blunt the "strike hard" policy with his own policy of "balancing leniency and severity" (Chinese: 宽严相济; pinyin: Kuānyán Xiāngjì), which is supposedly influenced by Hu Jintao's Harmonious society concept. Xiao's policy includes improving the quality of appeals by mandating that the SPC, rather than simply the high people's court, review capital crime cases; increasing use of the "death sentence with two years' probation"; and requiring "clear facts" and "abundant evidence" for capital cases.[14]

The abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong since 1993 is a major reason why mainland China does not have a rendition agreement with that city.[23]

Capital crimes

The list of capital crimes includes counter-revolutionary crimes, such as organizing an "armed mass rebellion"; endangerment of the public security, such as committing arson; and crimes against the person, such as the rape of a person under the age of 14.[10] During the 1980s, "economic crimes" such as bribery, drug-trafficking, and embezzlement were added to the legal code.[10] Capital punishment in China can be imposed on crimes against national symbols and treasures, such as theft of cultural relics and (before 1997) the killing of pandas.[24] Executions under the pretense of political crimes are extremely rare and confined to persons involved in violence or the threat of violence.[10]

Thirteen crimes were removed from the list of capital offenses in 2011, including smuggling of cultural relics, wildlife products, and precious metals.[25][26][27] This brought the total number of capital offenses down from 68 to 55,[9] though many of the crimes dropped from the list were rarely if ever punished by the death penalty.[27] The Draft 9th Amendment to the PRC Criminal Law issued in 2014 reportedly plans to eliminate the death penalty for 9 more offenses. [28]

Capital punishment is also imposed on inchoate offenses, that is, attempted crimes which are not actually fully carried out, including repeat offenses such as attempted fraud. The recidivistic nature of the offenses, not their seriousness per se, is what is adjudicated to merit the capital sentence.[citation needed]

Executions procedure

The execution protocol is defined on the criminal procedure law, under article 212:[29]

  • Before a people's court executes a death sentence, it shall notify the people's procuratorate at the same level to send personnel to supervise the execution.
  • Death sentences shall be executed by means of shooting or injection.
  • Death sentences may be executed at the execution ground or in designated places of custody.
  • The judicial personnel directing the execution shall verify the identity of the criminal offender, ask him if he has any last words or letters, and then deliver him to the executioner for the death sentence. If, before the execution, it is found that there may be an error, the execution shall be suspended and the matter shall be reported to the Supreme People's Court for decision.
  • Execution of death sentences shall be announced to the public, but shall not be held in public.
  • The attending court clerk shall, after the execution of a death sentence, make a written record thereon. The people's court that caused the death sentence to be executed shall submit a report on the execution to the Supreme People's Court.
  • The people's court that caused the death sentence to be executed shall, after the execution, notify the family of the criminal offender.

In some areas of China, there is no specific execution ground. A scout team chooses a place in advance to serve as the execution ground. In such case, the execution ground normally will have three perimeters: the innermost 50 meters is the responsibility of the execution team; the 200 meter radius from the center is the responsibility of the People's Armed Police; and the 2 km alert line is the responsibility of the local police. The public is generally not allowed to view the execution.

The role of the executioner was fulfilled in the past by the People's Armed Police. In recent times, the legal police force (Chinese: 法警; pinyin: fǎ jǐng) assumed this role.

China commonly employs two methods of execution. Since 1949, the most common method has been execution by firing squad, which has been largely superseded by lethal injection, using the same three-drug cocktail pioneered by the United States, introduced in 1996. Execution vans are unique to China, however. Lethal injection is more commonly used for "economic crimes", such as corruption, while firing squads are used for more common crimes like murder. In 2010, Chinese authorities moved to have lethal injection become the dominant form of execution; in some provinces and municipalities, it is now the only legal form of capital punishment.[30] The Dui Hua foundation notes that it is impossible to ascertain whether these guidelines are closely followed, as the method of execution is rarely specified in published reports.[12]

Rates of execution

By the confirmed numbers, the rate of executions in China is higher than the United States and Pakistan, though Iran executes more prisoners per capita.[citation needed] The number of executions has dropped significantly since the Supreme People’s Court regained the power to review all death sentences in 2007; for instance, the Dui Hua Foundation estimates that China executed 12,000 people in 2002, 6,500 people in 2007, and roughly 2,400 in 2013 and 2014. [31][1][32]

The exact numbers of people executed in China is classified as a state secret; occasionally death penalty cases are posted publicly by the judiciary, as in certain high-profile cases. One such example was the execution of former State Food and Drug Administration director Zheng Xiaoyu, which was confirmed by both state television and the official Xinhua News Agency.[33] Other media, such as Internet message boards, have become outlets for confirming death penalty cases usually after a sentence has been carried out.

In 2009, Amnesty International counted 1718 executions as having taken place during 2008 (which equates to 0.0001%, or 1 in 1,000,000 of the Chinese population[34]), based on all information available. Amnesty International believed that the total figure was likely to be much higher.[35]


Human rights groups and foreign governments have criticized China's use of the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including its application for non-violent offenses, allegations of the use of torture to extract confessions, legal proceedings that do not meet international standards, and the government's refusal to publish statistics on the death penalty.[36] However, the vast majority of death sentences, as acknowledged by both the Chinese Supreme Court and the United States Department of State, are given for violent, nonpolitical crimes which would be considered serious in other countries.[10]

The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong has accused Chinese hospitals of using the organs of executed prisoners for commercial transplantation.[37] Under Chinese law, condemned prisoners must give written consent to become organ donors, but because of this and other legal restrictions an international black market in organs and cadavers from China has developed.[38][39] In 2009, Chinese authorities acknowledged that two-thirds of organ transplants in the country could be traced back to executed prisoners and announced a crackdown on the practice.[40]

Wrongful executions

Like other countries which use capital punishment, there have been people wrongfully executed by the courts. A few well-known examples are:

  • Wei Qingan (Chinese: 魏清安, ?-1984, 23 years old): a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape of Liu, a woman who had disappeared. The execution was carried out on 3 May 1984 by the Intermediate People's court. In the next month, Tian Yuxiu (田玉修) was arrested and admitted that he had committed the rape. Three years later, Wei was officially declared innocent.[41][42]
  • Teng Xingshan (Chinese: 滕兴善, ?-1989): a Chinese citizen who was executed for supposedly having raped, robbed and murdered Shi Xiaorong (石小荣), a woman who had disappeared. An old man found a dismembered body, and incompetent police forensics claimed to have matched the body to the photo of the missing Shi Xiaorong. The execution was carried out on 28 January 1989 by the Huaihua Intermediate People's court. In 1993, the previously missing woman returned to the village, saying she had been kidnapped to Shandong. The absolute innocence of the wrongfully executed Teng was not admitted until 2005.[43]
  • Nie Shubin (Chinese: 聂树斌, 1974-1995): a Chinese citizen who was executed for the rape and murder of Kang Juhua (康菊花), a woman in her thirties. The execution was carried out on April 27, 1995 by the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's court. In 2005, ten years after the execution, Wang Shujin (Chinese: 王书金) admitted to the police that, in fact, he had committed the murder.[44]
  • Huugjilt  : A young Chinese national executed for the murder of some young people. The authorities later found the real culprit, Zha Zhihong, who was executed in 2015. Zha was reported to have put the blame on Huugjilt, whose family has now been compensated.[45]

See also


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