30 March 2010
The Guardian - Comment is free
You might have heard it said that China executes more people than all other countries in the world put together. Not just a handful, but thousands and thousands of people every single year. This, broadly, is true.
But suppose you actually wanted to find out exactly how many people the People's Republic executes annually. Any chance of getting this information? No. Try asking the Chinese authorities, and you'll get a stern "it's a state secret" rebuff. If you happened to get hold of some solid information (from lawyers in China, for example) you'd then be in possession of a state secret which it would be illegal to make public. It's basically as if there's a super-injunction on the information – not just on the actual information, but anything relating to it.
Amnesty's new report on the death penalty worldwide does its best to cut through the secrecy by estimating that there were "thousands" of executions in China in 2009. Based on sources – which we can't, for safety's sake, reveal – this seems reasonable. But it's still a rough and ready guesstimate. Amazing, given the seriousness of the topic.
China likes to have it both ways. It's been boasting that it has reformed its capital punishment system and that execution numbers are down. But it won't give any figures.
One thing we know – more or less – is that there are approximately 68 offences in China for which you can receive a death sentence. Many are not for lethal crimes – as we saw with the shocking execution of the British man Akmal Shaikh in December for alleged drugs offences. China's capital crimes reportedly include reselling forged VAT receipts, causing damage to public property, and cattle rustling. Three years ago a man was sentenced to death for selling overpriced ants.
However, I don't think a full list exists. That would be far too open for the Chinese authorities. If a proper source ever comes to light, it will be interesting to see if "revealing a state secret, including information about the People's Republic of China's use of capital punishment" is included as a capital crime. It wouldn't surprise me – this Catch 22-like paradox would suit China's secretive use of the death penalty down to the ground.
But here's an ominous thought. State secrets are normally things like defence matters or intelligence issues. What, then, is China so keen to hide on the death penalty?
Could it be that the numbers of people in China going to their deaths before firing squads and in mobile lethal injection chambers is actually far higher than we already feared?