The Death Penalty in China as a State Sponsored Human Rights Abuse

Submitted by lgintern on

In the past couple of decades, there has been a global shift away from use of the death penalty.1 Many nations around the world are beginning to realize that the death penalty is not only an outdated means of punishment, but also a violation of international human rights standards. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, states that individuals may not be deprived of life. Capital punishment appears to directly violate this provision. Article five of the UDHR also protects individuals from being “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”2 The death penalty, while ostensibly done in the name of justice and ensuring social stability, is arguably the ultimate cruel, inhuman punishment; it is the systematic deprivation of life carried out under the color of law and with the force of the state. The death penalty is essentially state sponsored, premeditated murder under the guise of promoting justice and securing social order. In China, this systematic injustice is taken to an extreme and turned into a profit earning venture for government officials by abusing the inefficient judicial system, sentencing thousands to death, and upon their execution harvesting and selling their organs.

While gaining momentum in the 21st century, the global movement to abolish capital punishment is not new. The UDHR, adopted in 1948, served as an early attempt to codify international norms centered on promoting the value and dignity of the individual.2 While the UDHR did not explicitly proscribe the death penalty, its provisions show a strong abhorrence for the practice of taking the life of another. In order to establish a more robust international framework against capital punishment, in 1989, the international community largely adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This treaty, which was added as an amendment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, explicitly aims to abolish the death penalty.3 The drafters of the Protocol directly stated that they amended the ICCPR in order to advance their belief that “abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights.” There are also three regional treaties that aim to prevent the use of capital punishment. While these treaties are not legally binding, they help set an international norm against executions.1

According to Amnesty International, in 2012 the total number of confirmed executions globally was 682.1 These executions were held in twenty-one countries. While this number may already seem high, it does not even come close to accounting for the actual number of executions. This is because China refuses to report their numbers. While the government claims that they only conduct a few thousand executions per year, international observers estimate that China executes closer to ten thousand prisoners each year. The real number could easily be more.4 China is notorious for keeping their execution numbers a state secret, which complicates Amnesty International’s attempts to document executions in the country, forcing them to use the lowest confirmed number.1 Even according to the government’s own statistics, China is still undoubtedly the greatest abuser of the capital punishment system. Using the lowest estimate of 2,000 people per year, which is still over three times the global total, they would be executing an average of five or six people daily. To put this in perspective, the second highest global executor, Iran, reported 314. The third highest, Iraq, reported 129. The fourth highest, Saudi Arabia, reported 79. The fifth highest, The United States, reported 43. These four countries combined executed 565 of the total 682, meaning the other 117 executions occurred in the remaining 17 countries utilizing capital punishment in 2012.1

The incredibly large number of executions in China annually stems in part from the high number of crimes that warrant the death sentence. Currently, there are 55 crimes that authorize the use of capital punishment, and out of these 55, 31 are non-violent crimes. This number is extremely high, yet it has been reduced from 68 crimes punishable by death. In 2011, 13 crimes were made exempt from capital punishment, most of these being economic crimes. The crimes punishable by death fall into nine categories; violating duties of military servicemen, graft and bribery, endangering the national defense interest, disrupting the order of social administration, encroaching on property, infringing upon the rights of the person and his democratic rights, undermining the socialist market economic order, endangering public security, and endangering national security.6 These categories of crimes warranting capital punishment makes China not only the country with the most crimes punishable by death, but also the country with the widest range of crimes.

The large number and range of crimes that are punishable by death in China come from the Communist Party’s desire to exercise strict control over the population. In 1982, China launched the Strike-Hard Campaign in order to maintain social stability through strong centralized government. The goal of this campaign was essentially to deter prospective criminals from committing a crime by imposing extreme sentences. This policy of strict punishment in accordance with the law came in three installments. The first in 1982 established 24 criminal laws with the death penalty as their punishment.7 Proposed by Deng Xiaoping in order to deal with a rapidly rising crime rate during a time of social transition for China, the government believed that this campaign effectively managed crime. The next installment of the Strike-Hard Campaign was in 1996, when a large increase in crime prompted the addition of other crimes warranting the death penalty 8 The Strike Hard Campaign was again considered successful in combating crime and was used again in 2001 to handle another spike in crime.8

While the desire to combat crime may seem justified, the judicial system in China does not operate fairly, leaving little room for defendants to challenge charges brought against them. In China, 99.81% of defendants are found guilty, hinting at the fact that trials are merely a show to appear as a just trial system.9 The Party exercises tremendous control over criminal verdicts through political-legal committees. Public Safety Bureau officials often serve as leaders of these committees. This enables police to control the outcome of politically sensitive trials..9 Moreover, as PSB officials invariably outrank judicial officials in China’s political hierarchy, the PSB’s mandate to maintain social stability outweighs an individual's right to a fair trial.9 This lack of due process protections violates articles ten and eleven of the UDHR. These state that everyone has the right to a fair trial and shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty.2  China’s extraordinarily high conviction rate evinces a blatant disregard for such protections. In the end, police influence over judicial decisions makes China’s legal system little more than a tool of repression. In many cases, authorities wield this tool to impose the death penalty on innocent victims.

Teng Biao, a prominent human rights activist in China and co-founder of the organization China Against the Death Penalty, believes that unfair trials, which stem from a lack of judicial independence, is the most pressing issue for China’s legal system. This “miscarriage of justice,” as Teng puts it, means that those who are innocent are put on trial and have little means to defend themselves. In effect, PSB officials can sentence such people to death through their control over the criminal justice system.  Teng states, “In many cases the police tortured a suspect and the judges use this evidence even when they know it has been obtained illegally. A judge is supposed to exclude evidence obtained through torture but because the court is not independent, they instead listen to the police and other Communist Party officials.”10

While suppressing dissent may appear to drive China’s reliance on capital punishment, the Party might harbor other motivations as well. One such motivation might be to profit from the illegal sale of organs from executed prisoners, turning their judicial system injustices into a profit making enterprise. Due to a cultural taboo that discourages many Chinese citizens from donating their organs, it is estimated that 95% of all organs used in China’s transplantation system are harvested from executed prisoners. 11 While the government states that they receive consent from the families of inmates prior to harvesting organs, they often use intimidation, deception and lack of fair notice to prevent the families of the prisoners from objecting to the use of their bodies for organ transplants.11

Chinese doctors who have testified before Congress attest to the fact that the government harvests organs from death row inmates, and the process begins even before their execution. Often inmates are tested for organ transplant capability, as well as injected with anticoagulant drugs before their execution. These doctors have said that upon their execution, these inmates are often strategically shot non-fatally, placing them in a coma to ensure their organs are fresh upon removal.11 Doctors are often present at executions so they can immediately harvest the inmates organs, sometimes while they are still alive. In the end, their bodies are completely stripped of organs, to the point of being referred to as “empty” by the doctors.11  Often, doctors or nurses will even go as far as to serve as organ brokers, coordinating the time of an execution with a scheduled organ transplant operation.11The operations are performed at government-run hospitals, as very few hospitals in China are privately owned. This allows the government to control both the selling and buying aspects of the transaction, giving many government officials supplementary income.11

The extraordinary number of executions carried out within China’s compromised and procedurally deficient criminal justice system shock the conscience and represent an egregious violation of protections outlined in international human rights treaties. The widespread practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners for profit further highlights the Chinese government’s lack of concern for the value of human life. Such abuses violate the UDHR, international medical standards, and even China’s own legal code, which prohibits harvesting organs from unwilling donors..11 The international community, however, remains largely silent. It appears that maintaining positive trade relations with the world’s second largest economy is more important than promoting human dignity.


1)"Death penalty 2012: Despite setbacks, a death penalty-free world came closer."

Amnesty International. 10Apr2013:<



2)The United Nations. The Commission on Human Rights.Universal Declaration of

Human Rights. 1948. <>.


3)The United Nations. The Commission on Human Rights.Second Optional Protocol to the

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Aiming at the Abolition of the

Death Penalty. 1989. <



4)"China Executes 10,000 People A Year - NPC Delegate."Rense. (2004):<http://rense.



5)Lim, Zi Heng. "Why China Executes So Many People."Altlantic. 09 May2013:<http://ww



Background Brief No. 412. (2008): <>.



PENALTY IN CHINA." Worldcrunch 04 April2013,<




8) Dingjian, Cai. China's Journey Toward Rule of Law. Leiden, The Netherlands:

Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010.


9) Goodrich, Nicholas. "Whether a Black Jail or a White Jail, So Long as it is Arbitrary

Detention: Contextualizing Labor Camp Reform in China." Laogai Research

Foundation. (2013)


10) "Teng Biao: “In China, courts are told what decision to make in important cases,

including on the death penalty.”." Amnesty International . 16 Apr 2013.




11) House of Representatives, . "The Sale Of Body Parts By the People." Committee On

Government Reform and Oversight and the Committee on International

Relations. 04 Jun 1998