SAN FRANCISCO (December 12, 2011) — On December 1 through 3, 2011, a seminar on the death penalty was held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in eastern China. The seminar was jointly organized by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, assisted by the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The seminar is believed to be the first time a meeting focusing on the death penalty was organized in a UN forum in China. More than 30 Chinese scholars and officials whose work involves implementing and monitoring policies on the death penalty joined a group of three western experts and two UN officials at the seminar.

Topics addressed were wide-ranging. Chinese participants reiterated China’s long-term goal of abolishing the death penalty, but there was disagreement over when abolition would occur. There was support for further reducing the scope of the death penalty by removing more offenses from the list of capital crimes and lowering the upper age limit for eligibility. (The National People’s Congress set the age limit to 75 and removed capital punishment as a penalty for 13 crimes in February 2011.) At present 55 offenses in China’s Criminal Law are punishable by death. Participants agreed that more work needs to be done to rigorously define “the most serious crimes”—the only offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed under Article 6.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory—and reduce the possibility of wrongful conviction.

There was widespread agreement that greater transparency is needed, but none of the Chinese participants—several of whom are believed to have access to statistics on death verdicts and executions—disclosed the number of executions being carried out in China. Nevertheless a key statistic was revealed: since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) regained the power to conduct final review over death sentences on January 1, 2007, the number of executions has dropped by approximately 50 percent. It was also revealed that the SPC currently overturns about 10 percent of the death sentences it reviews each year (see seminar participant William Schabas’ blog for his account of the seminar and these statistics, as well as his suggestion that China abstain instead of voting “no” when the UN holds its next vote on a global death penalty moratorium).

On the eve of the seminar, a participant, Professor Liu Renwen, told an audience in Suzhou that in the four years since the SPC recommenced death-penalty review, the number of executions had declined by more than 50 percent. According to a 2006 media report, Professor Liu estimated that there were around 8,000 executions a year at that time. Dui Hua, a nonprofit humanitarian organization which regularly publishes its own estimates, also put the number at 8,000 in 2006. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported in 2008 that an “international human rights organization” estimated that as of 2007, China executed at least 8,000 people a year. Using this data and assuming a 50 percent drop, Dui Hua now estimates that approximately 4,000 executions take place in China every year.

“China has made dramatic progress in reducing the number of executions, but the number is still far too high and declining far too slowly,” said John Kamm, executive director of Dui Hua. “At the present rate of decline it will take many years for the government to reach its goal of abolishing the death penalty. The seminar jointly held by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a step towards greater openness and transparency. When officials and the public know the full extent of the death penalty in China, abolition will be achieved more quickly.”