Development of the death penalty during the last years

Thousands of people are executed in China every year. China is thus still considered the country that executes the most people worldwide every year.

It should be critically noted here that these statements always refer to the absolute execution figures. If one looks at the figures for 2015, for example, in relation to the size of the population, China is still behind the countries of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, even with an estimated 5000 executions per year.

Bild Landkarte China

Death sentences and executions are treated as state secrets in China. Therefore, no accurate data exists on the number of death sentences imposed and carried out each year.

The renowned human rights organization Dui Hua, which has been in dialogue with the Chinese government since 1999, estimated the number of executions for 2018 at around 2,000. In 2014, the organization still assumed 2,400 executions annually.

Despite the still high number of executions, in retrospect these are positive developments. For example, it is estimated that in 2002 there were still about 12,000 executions, and five years later there were 6,500 (see figure/table from the Dui Hua Foundation).

Offenses punishable by death

In China the death penalty can be imposed for 46 crimes. These include crimes such as murder, armed robbery, kidnapping of women and children, and rape. But also non-violent crimes such as conspiracy to endanger the sovereignty, the territory and the security of the country, betrayal of state secrets, or economic crimes can be punishable by death.

In 2015, the Xinhua news agency announced that 9 offenses would be removed from the list of crimes that could be punished by death, down from the previous 55.

These include weapons smuggling, smuggling of nuclear materials, currency counterfeiting, and prostitution offenses. Instead of death, these crimes are now punishable by life imprisonment. In 2011, 13 economic crimes that were also previously punishable by death were removed.

China’s legal system

China’s legal system and order is still largely determined by the one-party system: The Communist Party of China not only controls the military, the legislature and the executive, but also exercises complete control over the legal system. Because there is no freedom of speech, a high number of prisoners are imprisoned for political reasons. This particularly affects critics of the state.

Social conditions are also closely linked to the number of sentences and arrests: 10 % of all homicides are directly related to domestic violence. The accused and convicted are by no means only men: Women are also frequently accused and convicted of crimes and offenses related to domestic conflict. China therefore has a particularly high proportion of female prisoners compared with the rest of the world: According to statistics from the Dui Hua Foundation, over 100,000 of its prisoners were female in 2014. Women thus account for up to 20 percent of all detainees in cities such as Hong Kong. Depending on the severity and type of crime, they face up to 10 years in prison or even death sentences.

Prosecution and court proceedings

The indictments and court proceedings in China are still difficult to understand due to the lack of transparency. However, some things have been disclosed over the past few years.

Until the early 2000s, a judge did not even have to have a law degree. Suspects and defendants were not provided with a legal defense during the initial police interrogations or during court proceedings. Foreign defendants were denied interpreters.

Only in 2006 was it decided by law that death sentences could only be pronounced publicly and in the presence of three judges. Likewise, defendants have had the right to be heard since the beginning of 2006. In 2012, Chinese criminal law was amended and expanded for the first time in 16 years. Among other things, this is intended to provide those sentenced to death with better and adequate legal assistance.

Death sentences with immediate effect and on probation

There are two different types of death sentences in China: First, sentences with prompt execution, and second, death sentences on “probation.” In this case, the defendant is granted a two-year reprieve until execution. During these two years, the prisoner must perform forced labor. At the end of this period, provincial prosecutors decide whether the death penalty should be carried out or commuted to life imprisonment, depending on the prisoner’s conduct. Parole is generally not granted in clear-cut murder cases. A life sentence is generally 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Between the final verdict and the execution of the sentence it takes less than one year. Since 2007, every final death sentence must be confirmed by the Supreme People’s Court.

Execution procedure and method

Prisoners are notified of their execution only one day before it takes place. Family members are denied the date for just as long, so that in most cases it is not even possible to say goodbye to the relatives.


In China, executions were carried out exclusively by shooting (shot in the neck) until 2001.

In September 2001, the administration of lethal injections was introduced. In the course of this, mobile execution facilities were created: Converted buses shuttled between provincial courts, allowing for swift execution by lethal injection at each location.

In 2009, the first permanent lethal injection facility was built in Beijing. Medication-wise, the execution dose is composed of a mixture of various barbiturates, muscle relaxants, and potassium chloride. According to statements made by the government in 2009, lethal injections were to replace shootings in the future and become the sole method of execution.

Illegal organ transplants

Nevertheless, there is no precise information on the percentage distribution of the two execution methods. In some cases, information and assumptions about this are also contradictory. For example, CADP (China Against the Death Penalty), a human rights organization founded by Chinese lawyers and university lecturers, assumed in its annual report in 2012 that only a minority would be executed by lethal injection. The reason for this is that the method is much more cost-intensive. In addition, execution by lethal injection does not allow for the continued use of body parts for organ transplants. According to CADP, organ transplantation through the removal of organs from executed persons is still common practice. Organ transplants in China through the (illegal) removal of body parts, including those from executed persons, have been the subject of public debate and especially international criticism for a long time. Note: Whether the information and assumptions by media as well as the mentioned organization correspond to the actual facts can neither be verified nor confirmed at this point.

Further sources and information on the death penalty in China:

Amnesty International: “When the State Kills: Death Penalty in China”, report dated September 9, 2015; Cornell Law School database; on Organ transplants also the article: “Organ transplants: spare the bullets“, The Economist, 14.03 2015. CADP (China against Death Penalty): report 2012; “Annual report 2017,” published in June 2018, Dui Hua Foundation

Sources and further information on current statistics and changes in the law in China can be found on the official homepage of the Dui Hua Foundation The Dui Hua Foundation

As of February 2020