Inside China's brutal death policy: 'World’s worst executioner'

The communist state has a notorious record of imposing the death penalty 'quickly' and 'in large numbers' with a range of horrible methods used.

China's brutal and secretive justice system has been thrust into the spotlight this week as we learned the fate of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, five years after he was arrested and accused of espionage.

The dual-citizen and democracy activist — who migrated to Australia in 1999 — has been imprisoned in China since his arrest in 2019 on suspicion of spying for Australia — allegations he and the Australian government have strongly denied. But on Monday, he was given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court.

"The suspended nature of the death sentence suggests that Beijing wanted to send a strong message to domestic audiences — potentially a deterrent message — that it will not tolerate the release of state secrets, while not fully committing to a death sentence," Professor Bec Strating from La Trobe Univerity told Yahoo News Australia.

But the decision is a dark and "terrible reminder of the stark differences" between the Chinese and Australian systems of justice and government, Coalition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said this week.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun is pictured in two photos.
Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court. Source: AP/Getty

China 'world's worst executioner'

The communist state has a notorious record of imposing the death penalty for a range of offences, including espionage, drug offences and even white-collar crimes such as corruption. It's been branded the "world’s worst executioner" by Amnesty International.

So it's unsurprising Dr Yang faces the death penalty, and will likely be commuted to life in prison, Donald Rothwell from the Australian National University pointed out. But if "circumstances were different" — perhaps if he wasn't a foreign citizen — "he could have been facing execution this week", the professor of International Law told Yahoo News Australia. Ultimately, it's a terrifying reminder of the brutal punishments under Beijing's draconian legislation.

Chinese police wear masks as they escort two convicted drug pedlars for their executions in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 2004.
China, a communist state, has a notorious record of imposing the death penalty for a range of offences. Source: Getty

China's execution 'conveyor belt'

When death sentences are handed down "it happens quickly" in "very large numbers" Rothwell said. Amnesty International calls it a "conveyor belt of executions".

"The general view across the board is that China carries out more executions than any other country in the world and that those numbers are certainly seen to be in the thousands," Rothwell explained. "But there is no formal governmental reporting of executions, so it's very difficult to get verifiable numbers."

"China has a record of carrying out executions very quickly once a sentence has been handed down," he said. "So unless there are appeal options or if appeal options are not being pursued, an execution will occur very quickly".

Methods used for mass executions

Research from The Australian National University (ANU) in 2022 suggests Chinese surgeons at state-run civilian and military hospitals have executed death-row prisoners by removing their hearts. It's believed they're used in medicine and scientific experiments — but also, organ harvesting is "extremely profitable".

Rothwell said this can be "seen as a possible further basis for the rise in undocumented executions", and while not directly linked to the case or Dr Yang, "it provides general context to the state of human rights practices in China".

Chinese military march in formation as they do a last rehearsal before a parade to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2019 in Beijing, China
Firing squads (shooting) and lethal injections are believed to be two favoured methods of execution used to carry out state-sanctioned executions. Source: Getty

Firing squads (shooting) and lethal injections are believed to be two favoured methods of execution used to carry out state-sanctioned executions. In recent times lethal injections have taken over reportedly because its cheaper and more secretive.

The lethal injections are believed to be administered in what's been referred to as execution vans, or mobile death vans, which allow the execution of prisoners without having to transport them to jail — plus, their secretive nature means victims are not often named due to the speed in which they are tried and executed.

Capital punishment a 'means of state control'

It's not uncommon for authoritarian governments to retain the death penalty, Rothwell pointed out, adding that China "doesn't have a very modern or liberal approach to human rights and is not very receptive to so-called Western human rights values".

Under Xi Jinping's regime, "China has moved to become even more authoritarian," especially when it comes to "law and order issues". Rothwell said capital punishment is being used "as an additional means of state control".

Anthony Albanese and Chinese leader Xi Jinping
Australia and China have been working toward mending a fractured relationship, but the news of Hengjun's sentence poses new challenges. Source: Getty

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, agreed and said the death penalty had "long been a political tool of the Chinese Communist party’s to showcase its power over the population, and its readiness to eliminate those it deems 'criminal'," The Guardian reported. Additionally, Amnesty’s China researcher Kai Ong said "the Chinese government still sees the use of the death penalty as an effective deterrent to crimes," The Sun reported.

"Xi Jinping's regime has very much sought to send out a message to the population that capital punishment will be used and that the Chinese citizens need to be aware that if they transgress significantly, they could be subject to capital punishment," Rothwell added.

What Dr Yang's sentencing means for Australia

The news this week threatens a recent warming of relations between Australia and China, analysts say, which until late last year had been marred by tensions over trade, Covid-19 and China's security posture.

While Australia and China have significantly repaired diplomatic relations since Labor took office, Coalition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the news was a sobering reminder of the different realities of the two countries.

"Not only is this a painful blow to Dr Yang, but in terms of people-to-people relations, it is a reminder of the risks that apply in doing business or engaging with China," he said. "It’s a reminder of why it is important for us to always defend the very important values and systems that we have the privilege of enjoying here in Australia."

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