President of the Supreme People's Court, Wang Shengjun, said during a court inspection in Guangdong province that tough sentences were necessary to ensure the public's sense of security.
"Courts at all levels should severely punish those violent criminals that seriously jeopardize public security, especially those involved in gangsters or organized crimes and terrorism," Wang said in a report by state-run newsagency Xinhua.
According to The Associated Press he added: "Where the law mandates the death sentence, the death sentence should be given."
Wang said crimes that involved terrorism, organised groups or violence, and crimes that "seriously threaten social order" should be dealt with especially harshly.
His remarks contrasted with the more measured approach of the previous Chief Justice, Xiao Yang, who in November 2006 urged the country's courts to use "extreme caution" when handing down death sentences and said every judgement should "stand the test of time".
"In cases where the judge has legal leeway to decide whether to order death, he should always choose not to do so," Xiao Yang said, according to a Xinhua report.
The death sentence should be reserved for only an "extremely small number" of serious offenders, he said.
Fewer, but necessary
A senior Chinese judge recently said more death sentences were overturned on appeal last year, but the death penalty was still needed in the country.
Huang Ermei, head of the Supreme People's Court criminal case chamber, said in March that the death penalty suited the country's current level of development and was needed to deter crime.
The Associated Press reported her comments were posted in an interview on the government China Peace Web site.
"Abolishing the death penalty is an international trend in punishment, but this trend cannot be divorced from a country's own conditions," Huang said.
"Currently our country does not have the conditions to abolish the death penalty and will not have those conditions for a considerable period of time."
She said the Supreme People's Court last year rejected 15 per cent of death sentences imposed by local courts.
The Beijing Morning Post said the verdicts were overturned "because facts surrounding initial convictions were unclear, evidence insufficient, punishment inappropriate, procedures illegal and other reasons".
Since 1 January 2007, all death sentences had to be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court before they could be carried out.
Huang said the death penalty was mostly applied for murder and other violent crimes, drug trafficking and crimes against social order, but it was also used for serious economic crimes and corruption.
The Chinese government again provided no meaningful statistics on the use of the death penalty, combining the number of death sentences with all custodial sentences over five years.
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