HONG KONG—China's ruling Communist Party has declined in recent years to make public the number of people it executes every year, in spite of challenges from international human rights groups.
According to Harry Wu, founder of the U.S.-based Laogai Foundation, which produced evidence of extensive organ harvesting from executed prisoners, recent years have seen executions transformed from a spectator sport into a state secret, carried out behind closed doors.
"The Chinese Communist Party in the past always regarded executions as positive news," Wu said. "The suppression of evil elements was regarded as a cause for celebration."
Overview of the death penalty for 2009
© Amnesty International
Amnesty International on Tuesday called on Beijing to reveal how many people they execute and sentence to death, as the organization published its world overview of the death penalty for 2009.
It said thousands of executions "were likely to have taken place" in China, where information on the death penalty remains a state secret.
The group said that estimates based on publicly available information grossly under-represented the actual number of people killed by the state or sentenced to death.
"The death penalty is cruel and degrading, and an affront to human dignity," Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International's Interim Secretary General, said in a statement on the group's Web site.
"The Chinese authorities claim that fewer executions are taking place. If this is true, why won't they tell the world how many people the state put to death?"
Hospital employees in the southern province of Guangdong indicated a roaring trade in organs for transplant in interviews in 2005, boasting that a liver could be available in as short a time as a week, with one nurse saying that "most" were taken from executed prisoners.
"They would always execute a bunch of people on the eve of a major festival as a public spectacle," Wu said. "This was seen as something the ordinary people like to see, and as a basic method of keeping down the number of criminal offences and counterrevolutionary acts."
Chinese courts then moved to putting up a notice for a single day, following new guidelines in 2002, Wu said.
"Then they stopped even putting those up. They don't even inform the relatives now," he said. "And now they no longer announce the numbers of those who have been killed."
'Miscarriages of justice'
Beijing-based rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who attended the United Nations’ Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva in February, said the fact that China's judicial system still lacks political independence is a cause for grave concern.
"When judges and courts handle cases, they are unable to proceed according to their own understanding of the law," Jiang said.
"What's more, China engages in proactive law-enforcement tactics, which means that if something happens, they will go on a campaign to 'strike hard' [at such crimes]."
"It's very easy for miscarriages of justice to occur under wave after wave of campaign-style law-enforcement," Jiang said.
He said China would be unlikely to abolish the death penalty while it is still under single-party rule, since moves to abolish the death penalty are linked to respect for human rights and democracy.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Joint Committee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, whose members include Amnesty International Hong Kong, Community of Sant'Egidio, and the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, said nearly 130 Hong Kong citizens had been executed in mainland China in the past decade, all for nonviolent crimes.
"Out of these, more than 80 were executed for drug-trafficking offenses," Ke Enen said.
"We call on China at least to reform its use of the death penalty, even if it is unable to abolish it yet, and to abolish the use of the death penalty for economic and nonviolent crimes."
Amnesty International's report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2009
, reveals that at least 714 people were executed in 18 countries and at least 2,001 people were sentenced to death in 56 countries last year.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see, and in Mandarin by Xi Wang. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.