Amnesty International reaffirmed in a report on Thursday that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, with executions in China numbering in the thousands. However, the actual number of executions in China—as always—is a closely guarded state secret. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei dismissed the study, saying that Amnesty International is off the mark. “The relevant organization always has biased opinions against China,” Hong Lei said at a regular press briefing.
Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty, does not believe the report or the organization are biased against China, telling The Diplomat, “We certainly don’t have biased opinions against China. We look at China’s human rights record against the same international human rights law that we do all countries.” Of course, the report issued by Amnesty is a global one, listing the five worst offenders in state executions, including the United States. “It so happens that China is still at the top of the list,” Rife states. “But we’re holding all countries to the same standard.”
As to China’s defense of the death penalty—in addition to the obligatory argument of deterrence—the foreign ministry said that state executions were part of the nation’s “legal and cultural traditions.” Hong Lei told the press briefing, “Whether or not a country retains the death penalty is mainly based on the traditional culture and specific national conditions.” He added that it, “meets the aspirations of the Chinese public.”
“The Chinese government itself has reported in recent years taking steps to limit it, and honestly I think that reflects strong public opinion that has come out on several cases in the last few years. Even in China, public opinion is clearly divided,” said Rife. As to the argument that the death penalty is a matter of culture, Rife commented, “You can’t say monolithically that it’s part of a culture or accepted; it’s just not. Clearly the global trend is for abolition, which exists in countries in every region, representing a lot of different geography, lots of different religions, lots of different cultures.”
A rise in executions in Iran and Iraq increased global totals in 2013, with the U.S. coming in the last of the top five executing countries, with 39 executions—around 40 percent of which came from Texas alone. Amnesty International did not publish any actual statistics on Chinese executions in the report and hasn’t done so since 2009, due to both the extreme number of executions and lack of reliable information. Rife states, “We closely monitor news reports, we talk to petitioners, activists and people inside and outside China. We continue to monitor it just as much as we ever have.”
Other human rights organizations have tried to put a figure to Chinese executions: Human Rights Watch estimated 4,000 in January and rights group Dui Hua Foundation put the total around 3,000 in 2012. Despite the foreign ministry’s argument about culture, executions in China are dropping rapidly. Both Human Rights Watch and rights group Dui Hua agree that the numbers for executions in China were well in excess of 10,000 a decade ago. Other reforms have helped as well, such as Supreme Court reviews of death penalty cases and a move last year to make capital trials more fair, an extremely accommodating goal in China’s rampantly corrupt court system. With issues like a lack of representation and even confessions made under torture, concerns about the application of the death penalty take on an even more grave and severe tone.
China has shown real drive in reducing the number of executions, and Rife believes abolition is a distinct possibility: “I do think it’s achievable. These reforms that have been taken on could absolutely reduce the numbers. If that’s their goal, then why don’t they share the reduction in a very concrete manner by giving us the actual numbers.” China has boasted on a number of occasions that it is cutting back on its executions and has published percentages to that effect, but percentages without the raw numbers are pointless, as Rife states: “The Chinese government has given us percentages on the drop (of executions). If that’s true, they’re the ones who should be putting out the numbers, not us.”
In a number of very public cases, the Chinese masses have come out both for and against the death penalty in droves online, which Rife attributes to a lack of information on the subject of the death penalty in China: “There’s just a lack of information, and when you have that lack, it’s hard to have the conversation to really make a change.”
Indeed, it’s not just the secret execution stats; the Chinese public can be forgiven for not knowing anything about the human rights aspect of the death penalty, as China blocks nearly all international human rights websites in China—from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International. In that sort of environment, both education on the subject of the death penalty and abolition seem very far away indeed.