Since carrying out its first executions by lethal injection ten years ago in the city of Kunming, China has gradually expanded its use of the practice, which is promoted as a more civilized, scientific, and economical form of capital punishment than the still-common execution by shooting.

Mobile execution vehicle in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, 2004. Photo credit: Sina

Many details about the lethal injection procedure employed in China remain unknown, but published reports suggest that a two-drug sequence is used. These drugs, identified only as “Drug One” and “Drug Two,” are produced specifically for the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which has doses delivered only upon its approval of lower courts’ death sentences. Medical equipment is used to monitor brain waves—to measure the level of consciousness—and heartbeat. A specially-designed pump administers the drugs intravenously at the push of a button. Death is achieved in one to two minutes.

In 2002, the SPC directed all intermediate people’s courts able to do so to begin using lethal injection to execute condemned prisoners. Courts in some larger cities have constructed lethal-injection chambers, and others have purchased specially-equipped vehicles to serve as mobile execution sites that can be shared within a province. The start-up costs associated with acquiring such equipment, coupled with the lack of qualified personnel, have contributed to resistance by some local courts to adopt lethal injection.

Despite fears that the spread of lethal injection would lead to even greater use of the death penalty in China, the SPC recently announced the number of executions carried out to date in 2007 has been at an historic low. Since taking back the authority over review of all death sentences in China, the SPC has also set forth new guidelines encouraging courts to issue more suspended death sentences, which can be commuted to life or fixed-term sentences after a two-year period.