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The World’s Top Executioner: Capital Punishment in China

Death Penalty Worldwide has just updated its research on capital punishment in China. China executes thousands of people every year, but it’s difficult to provide exact figures because of the secrecy surrounding executions.  Another non-governmental organization, the Dui Hua Foundation, estimates that China executed 3000 people in 2013—more than the rest of the world put together.

The number of executions in China is particularly troubling in light of reports that capital defendants do not receive fair trials according to international standards. Suspects are sometimes denied access to attorneys, lawyers are barred from representing certain clients, and courts withhold evidence in politically sensitive cases. Moreover, defendants are presumed guilty and must prove their innocence, with the result that 99.9% of criminal defendants are found guilty.  Appeals are rarely successful. Recent cases have also raised the concern that the death penalty is applied primarily against the poor. In September 2013, an impoverished street vendor who claimed to have stabbed two officers in self-defense during an interrogation was executed for murder. His attorney maintains that key evidence was missing during his trial. In contrast, Gu Kailai, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and daughter of a revolutionary general, was given a suspended death sentence in August 2012 on grounds of mental illness after being convicted of planning and carrying out the murder of a foreign businessman.

Despite China’s seeming enthusiasm for the death penalty, the country has enacted important reforms in recent years aimed at reducing the total number of executions.  In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court reclaimed its right to review every death sentence, after which the estimated number of executions was reduced by half. China took a further step away from the death penalty in 2011 by reducing the number of death-eligible crimes from 68 to 55 and banning the death penalty against those aged over 75 in an amendment to the Criminal Law. Recently, the president of the Supreme People’s Court publicly urged courts to hand out fewer death sentences. China may be far from abolishing capital punishment, but these are noteworthy reforms for the world’s top executioner.

Although the Chinese government is striving to curb its use of the death penalty through legal reform, it has yet to ratify any international treaties that impose restrictions on the use of the death penalty. China is not a party to the ICCPR and has repeatedly voted against the UN General Assembly’s Moratorium on the Death Penalty Resolution. Even in the absence of international commitments, China should enact reforms that will enhance fair trial protections and reduce the arbitrary application of the death penalty. The extent to which Chinese leaders are willing to implement additional domestic reforms will be paramount in China’s efforts to reduce the volume of executions.

You can access Death Penalty Worldwide’s full research on capital punishment in China here.