China’s death penalty reform has effectively reduced the number of people sentenced, indicating the reforms have had a positive effect, according to an article posted to WeChat by Justice Data, a Chinese legal blog that uses data and statistics to present legal issues from both China and abroad.

China’s death penalty system has seen two major reforms since 2007, the Chinese-language blog post details.

The first was when the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) regained the power of final review over death sentences which was originally undertaken by local high courts but led to many wrong convictions. One example is She Xianglin (佘祥林), who was sentenced to death for killing his wife in 1994, but who was later found to have confessed after 10 days of brutal beatings when his supposedly dead wife reappeared 11 years later. After 2007, the SPC sent back 39 percent of death sentences to lower local courts for additional evidence.

The second reform was the National People's Congress (NPC) review of the list of death penalty crimes, removing 13 crimes like theft, smuggling of artifacts and smuggling of precious metals in 2011, and removing another nine crimes in 2015, which included scams, organized prostitution and forced prostitution. By 2015, the number of crimes punishable by death had been reduced to 46 from the original 71.

Other reforms include a “kill fewer, kill cautiously” policy, mandatory public hearings for death penalty case reviews, in which judges should also interrogate the accused, instead of just reviewing documents. The standards used to review evidence were made stricter, and a system to disqualify illegal evidence was established.

Read More:
INFOGRAPHIC: China the World’s Top Executor in 2016
Supervising an Execution in China

Opaque numbers

According to Amnesty International, China was the world’s top executioner in 2016, followed by Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The Justice Data blog post claims that the international organizations who criticize China’s death penalty system have begun to acknowledge the effect of the legal reforms because they have started to lower their estimates of the number of executions and death sentences.

The first organization, which is called “X” in the blog post, stopped publishing their estimated number of executions and death sentences in 2009. “X now just says China’s estimated number of death penalty charges is 1,000-plus,” the blog’s author says. The blog post continues to point out that X has stated in yearly reports after 2009 that the return of power of final review to the SPC has decreased the number of death penalty charges.

Until 2009, Amnesty International, which publishes annual reports on the death penalty globally, listed the number of death penalty cases in China compiled from open sources, such as newspapers. However, the organization also included estimated figures of its own because it says the open-sourced numbers are far lower than what it believes to be the actual total number of death sentences and executions.

In 2009, Amnesty International found the Chinese government had been using the recorded figures it published to show the success of its death penalty reforms. The organization then stopped publishing the recorded figures because “of the risk that the Chinese government could manipulate the figures to claim ‘progress’ and further obscure the real scale and trend of its use of the death penalty.”

A second group, "H," is also named in the blog, which writes that H’s estimated number of death sentences and executions has reduced by about 70 percent between 2002 and 2013.

According to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, China executed far fewer people after the SPC regained the power of final review, dropping from an estimated 12,000 in 2000 to 2,400 in 2013.

Historical claims

The author of the post also points to the existence of the death penalty since before the Qin dynasty, and methods of execution — which included dismemberment by being pulled apart by five horses, or being cut apart at the waist — were far more gruesome than they are now. The blog also claims that crimes punishable by death were far more numerous in the past; during the Qing dynasty, about 800 crimes were death penalty crimes.

Editor: Edward White