Every year, the Chinese state carries out several thousand judicial executions — more than the rest of the world combined. For the most part, the names of those executed remain secret, known only to their families.
All figures about the death penalty, as well as most details about executions, remain classified as “state secrets,” part of a deliberate effort by China’s rulers to hide from public view the horrifying scale of the country’s capital punishment system.
While China is by far the most secretive country in the world over the scale of its executions, it is not alone. Secrecy is often a telltale sign of countries determined to continue with capital punishment.
In Vietnam, shocking information disclosed earlier this year revealed that the authorities had executed 429 people between mid-2013 to mid-2016, propelling it into third place in the world’s league table of executioners for that period.
In Malaysia, parliamentary pressure finally led to revelations last year that nine people were executed in the first nine months of the year, more than had previously been known.
These alarming revelations go against the worldwide trend of abandoning this cruel and ineffective punishment: excluding China, the number of executions worldwide in 2016 was down 37% from the previous year with 1,032 executions, according to Amnesty International’s latest annual report on the death penalty worldwide.
Miscarriages of justice
China’s criminal justice system is also plagued by insurmountable defects. With a conviction rate standing above 99% and a majority of criminal cases tried without a lawyer in the courtroom, the odds of defendants receiving a fair trial are abysmally low.
The risks of miscarriage of justice and wrongful executions are exacerbated by a judicial system that is not independent and continues to convict on evidence based on “confessions” — often coerced or extracted through torture.
Take the case of Nie Shubin, a 20-year-old executed by firing squad in 1995. Last December a court overturned his conviction, but that verdict came 21 years too late for him. If justice delayed is justice denied, then Nie Shubin’s is a case of a justice system disgraced.
Nie Shubin’s tragically-belated exoneration was lauded by state media as evidence recent legal reforms are working, so why do the authorities remain so intent on concealing details of executions today?
What happened to Nie could still happen today. The government knows it and that could be one of the reasons why they continue to cultivate secrecy. Until they open up, we will have no idea how often such travesties of justice occur.
Over the past decade, spurred on by domestic outrage over wrongful executions and embarrassed by international condemnation, the Chinese government embarked on a course of reforms of the death penalty system, under the less than reassuring banner of “killing fewer, killing cautiously.”
The most emblematic reform under this policy was to mandate from 2007 onward that all death sentences handed out by lower courts be reviewed and approved by the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing. Chinese legal experts have argued that the number of death sentences have been reduced simply because lower court officials are instinctively keen to avoid having their verdicts scrutinized by their superiors.
The government also adopted legal provisions with a view to limiting the risk of wrongful convictions, such as allowing the courts to exclude illegally obtained evidence and increasing the use of “suspended” death sentences, that are usually commuted to a term of imprisonment after two years have been served.
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. Last month, China’s top legal official, Supreme People’s Court President Zhou Qiang, claimed that executions in the country were now carried out in an “extremely small number of cases” and only for the “most severe offenses.”
This seems to be a colossal understatement. China Judgements Online, the official database established in 2013 that purports to compile court verdicts from the entire country, shows that no less than 701 individuals received death sentences between 2011 and 2016.
But even this belies the truth. An investigation by Amnesty International has revealed that hundreds of cases that had been publicly reported in the media have been omitted from the database, including all cases involving foreigners executed for drug-related offenses.
Based on its own analysis, Amnesty International estimates that the number of people sentenced to death or executed still runs in the thousands each year — hardly an “extremely small number.”
Yet, many in the international community seem to be willing to accept claims of sustained reductions and greater openness in China at face value. This is mistaken. Without transparency, China’s reform of the death penalty system will fall short, or even slide back.
The amount of progress that these limited legal reforms and piecemeal disclosures so far can achieve have run their course: now only political action can make a difference.
President Xi Jinping, who has proclaimed his ambition to reform China’s judicial system by making it fairer and more transparent, should turn his words into action and lift the cloak of secrecy that surrounds judicial executions.
Transparency may initially cause China some embarrassment. But this is a small price to pay to ensure the rights of those facing the death penalty are fully protected and China stops being a secretive outlier in the international community.
By Nicholas Bequelin