China’s deadly secret

That China remains among the world’s top executioners is no secret. According to Amnesty International’s latest global review of the death penalty, the number of death sentences handed out each year in the country is estimated to be in the thousands, a figure believed to be more than all other countries in the world put together. 

What remains a secret is the sheer scale of these executions; most information related to the death penalty is classified as “state secrets” under the country’s secrecy laws.

The Chinese government has recognized it is a laggard in terms of openness and judicial transparency, but it persists in actively concealing the true scale of executions. It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

A new in-depth investigation published in the report China’s Deadly Secrets shows that despite claims by China that it is making progress towards transparency in the justice system, Chinese authorities enforce an elaborate secrecy system with an aim to obfuscate the extent of executions.

This investigation found hundreds of executions in public media reports that were missing from a national online court database, which had been heralded as evidence of China’s increasing transparency.

Of 931 individuals reported by Chinese media to have been executed between 2014 and 2016, only 85 are found in the state database [see chart above]. Foreign nationals given death sentences for drug-related crimes are also missing from the state database, despite media reports of at least 11 executions of foreign nationals for drug crimes. There were also omissions in the database of cases that state media described as being related to “terrorism”.

On the public front, the Chinese government engaged in a smoke and mirrors strategy, alluding to a substantial decrease in death sentences and executions in recent years but never disclosing any numbers.

– Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International East Asia Director

Other findings highlighted in the China’s Deadly Secrets report (hyperlink) based on an analysis of 701 approved death sentences found in the China Judgements Online database include:

 Majority of people sentenced to death had relatively low levels of education. For example, only 15 of the 701 people sentenced to death, or 2%, had received a university or postgraduate education.

• Most were either unemployed (24%), internal migrant workers (6%), workers (5%) or classified as farmers (55%).

• 592 of the 701 were people of the Han ethnicity

• A handful of crimes receive the majority of death sentences in practice

The above aggregated data comes from only a partial data set and is therefore inconclusive, but the trends raise serious questions concerning the use the death penalty in China and can only be answered when authorities publish full figures.