Executions in 2018: min. 690 plus 'thousands' in China

The People’s Republic of China.

With thousands of people executed every year, China is still considered the country with the highest execution rate per year worldwide. However, we have to bear in mind that these statistics are based solely on absolute execution rates. If we look at the number of people executed in 2015 in relation to the state's population, China is with approximately 5000 executions per year still ranked on four behind Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran.

The death penalty and executions are considered a top-secret issue in China, which is why exact data on the numbers of felons sentenced to death and executed per year does not exist. Even Amnesty International does not have exact information on the issue. According to Dui Hua, a human rights organization located in San Francisco and Hong Kong, which has established regular dialogue with the Chinese government since 1999, the estimated number of executions carried out in 2014 was approximately 2.400 people. Although this number is still very high, the situation seems to be improving compared to previous years. In 2002 the estimated number of executions accounted for 12,000 people, and five years later declined almost by half with 6.500 people.

China's criminal justice system knows 46 criminal offenses that allow for the death penalty. Among them are murder, armed robbery, abduction of women and children or rape. Crimes like the conspiracy to threaten the state's sovereignty, the divulgence of state secrets or white-collar crimes can also be punished with death.

In 2015 the Xinhua news agency announced that nine criminal offenses were taken off the list of originally 55 criminal offenses allowing for the death penalty. Some of them were gunrunning, the smuggling of radioactive material, the uttering of counterfeit money as well as prostitution. Instead of the death penalty these crimes are now to be punished with imprisonment for life. In 2011 13 white-collar crimes, which formerly allowed for the death penalty, were erased from the list.

China's political and criminal justice system is still mainly characterized by the one party system. The Communist Party of China not only controls military, legislative executive power but also holds complete control over the judicial system. Since freedom of expression does not exist in China, the number of people incarcerated for political reasons is correspondingly high especially for critics of the state's policy

Social circumstances are also closely connected to the number of people arrested and convicted: 10% of all murder cases are directly related to domestic violence. But getting charged and convicted for these crimes is by no means only a man's province: women are also frequently charged and convicted for crimes related to domestic conflicts, which is why China's percentage of female prison inmates is particularly high. According to statistics of the Dui Hua Foundation there were over 10,000 female prison inmates registered in 2014. In cities like Hong Kong the percentage of female inmates thus accounts for up to 20%. Depending on the type and severity of the crime, these felons will face 10 years in prison or, in the worst case, a death sentence.

Charges and trials

Due to the lack of transparency to procedures surrounding charges and trials are always very hard to understand, although some things have been made accessible over the last years. By the year 2000 it wasn't even required for a judge to have a degree in law studies. Suspects and defendants were denied defense counsel during the first police interrogation and also in court during trial. Foreign defendants were denied interpreters.

It was not until 2006 that a law was passed requiring the presence of three judges ruling publicly in a possible death penalty case. Additionally a defendant was now given the ride of a hearing. In 2012, after 16 years, China's criminal justice system was revised and expanded for the first time. Among other things the goal was to strengthen the defendant's position and opportunities regarding an adequate defense counsel.

In China there are two types of death sentences: on the one hand the ones to be carried out immediately and on the other hand the court can decide to pronounce the judgment on "probation". In this case the defendant is granted a two-year reprieve until the execution is to be carried out. For the defendant this period is a time of penal labor. After this two-year period the local attorneys (authorities) decide according to the prisoners behavior whether the sentence is to be carried out on the verdict is to be reversed and changed into imprisonment for life (usually from 15 to 20 years). In clear-cut murder cases without any doubt a reversal of the verdict is usually denied.

The usual time frame from the final verdict to the execution carried out is less than a year. Since 2007 every final death warrant must be confirmed by China's Supreme Court.

Execution proceedings

Prisoners are told that they are going to be executed only one day prior to the actual execution. The scheduled execution date is also withheld from the family, so in most cases they won't even get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Until 2001 China's hourly execution method was the firing squad (shot in the back of the head.) In September 2001 the method of a lethal injection was implemented. As a part of that process, reports spread telling about mobile execution facilities: small buses which commute between local courts enabling quick executions by lethal injection on the drive. In 2009 the first permanent facility for carrying out executions by lethal injection was built in Beijing. The lethal drug cocktail used for the execution consists in a mixture of several barbiturates, muscle relaxants and potassium chloride. According to government statements lethal injections are planned to replace the firing squad in the future and become China's only execution method.

However, there is no exact data on the percental share of both execution methods and the information is partly contradictory or speculative. The CADP (China against the death penalty), a human rights organization founded by University instructors assumed in its annual report in 2012 that only a minority of prisoners is actually executed by lethal injection as the methods was on the one hand far more expensive and on the other hand not suitable for harvesting organs. According to CADP organ transplantations by harvesting organs from executed offenders are still common practice in China. Organ transplantations in China and the illegal harvesting of body parts from executed offenders have raised long-lasting public discussions and controversy. Especially internationally the practice has aroused much criticism. Note: the substance of this information and the speculations of the mentioned representatives of the media and organizations can neither be verified, nor confirmed here.

For sources and further information on the latest statistics and changes in the Chinese criminal justice system visit the official website of the The Dui Hua Foundation.

Further sources and information on the death penalty:

Amnesty International: "Wenn der Staat tötet: Todesstrafe in China" , Bericht vom 9. September 2015; Datenbank der Cornell Law School; lesen Sie zu Organtransplantionen auch den Artikel: "Organ transplants: Spare the bullets", The Economist vom 14.03 2015. CADP (China against Death Penalty): Report 2012. 

Latest update: July 2016.


Become involved

If you would love to do something against the death penalty but you just don’t have the time to become an active member of an organization and pen friendships have never been just the thing for you?  

There are many different ways one can become involved. We’ve collected a few ideas what can be done on these pages.  


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