For thousands of Chinese citizens convicted every year of capital crimes, some 300 court workers in an unmarked building in eastern Beijing are the only thing standing between them and death by lethal injection or a firing range.
China has been gradually reducing the number of executions—currently about 2,400 by some estimates—that it carries out each year. One method a mandatory review of all death penalty verdicts. According to a profile (link in Chinese) of China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, staff interview the convicted defendants in person or by video feed, reexamine evidence, and sometimes ask for more. They ultimately reject about 10% of death penalty verdicts.
The death penalty is often waived in cases involving the death of just one person, or if the defendant surrenders, according to the San Francisco-based human rights organization Dui Hua. China is also considering reducing the number of capital crimes from 55 to 46—taking the smuggling of weapons, counterfeit currency, and nuclear materials off the list, along with fraud and forcing or facilitating prostitution—and has vowed to stop the widespread practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Defendants may soon be able to be represented by lawyers throughout the review process; currently they are not.
Still, China executes a staggering number of its citizens: Last year, China’s estimated 2,400 executions vastly outweighed the 778 people executed in the rest of the world. Chinese authorities don’t release official data on the executions, a figure that is considered a state secret.