Skip to Content

How many crimes are punishable by death in China?

China is known to have one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world. The death penalty is applied for a wide range of crimes in China, significantly more than most other countries. Determining the exact number of crimes punishable by death in China is difficult due to lack of complete transparency and fluctuating laws, but most estimates put the figure at around 55 crimes.

Background on Capital Punishment in China

China is believed to execute more people each year than the rest of the world combined. However, the exact number is considered a state secret. Estimates range from 1000 to 10000 executions per year. Lethal injection is the most common method used.

The death penalty was abolished in China from 1949-1976 under Mao Zedong. But it was reinstated in 1979 as part of a “strike hard” campaign against crime. Executions then surged through the 1980s and 90s as China focused on building a socialist market economy and maintaining social stability.

All death sentences must be approved by the Supreme People’s Court. However, the actual number of executions is not publicly released. Trials and appeals for capital cases are often rushed, with limited transparency and allegations of forced confessions through torture.

Public support for the death penalty remains high in China, amid concerns over crime and maintaining order. However, some legal scholars and activists have questioned whether it is over-used, the lack of procedural oversight, and called for reforms.

Crimes Punishable by Death

The primary legal basis for capital punishment in China is the 1979 Criminal Law and subsequent amendments. Here are some of the main crimes from the law that carry the death penalty:

  • Treason, separatism, and espionage
  • Terrorist activities
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Bombing
  • Sabotaging infrastructure and transportation
  • Smuggling weapons, ammunition, nuclear materials
  • Prison escape
  • Airplane hijacking
  • Poisoning
  • Pandering and sheltering criminals
  • Credit fraud and financial crimes
  • Drug crimes including trafficking and manufacturing

Beyond the Criminal Law, the death penalty can also be applied under other legislation such as:

  • Forest Law
  • Customs Law
  • Maritime Law
  • Counter-Revolutionary Law
  • Food Safety Law

Based on analysis of the various laws, scholars estimate the total number of capital crimes in China to be around 55. However, some flexibility and ambiguity in interpreting the law allows for expansion in practice.

Application of the Death Penalty

In practice, the death penalty is most commonly applied in China for murder, drug trafficking, corruption, and terrorism-related crimes:

  • Murder accounts for a large proportion of executions, as the Criminal Law mandates capital punishment for killings deemed “serious” or with “heinous circumstances”.
  • China aggressively pursues drug dealers and traffickers, including foreign nationals, seizing and executing hundreds for these crimes each year.
  • Corruption crimes have also led to many high-profile death sentences in recent decades under political initiatives to curtail rampant graft.
  • Those deemed separatists or terrorists in restive regions like Xinjiang and Tibet also disproportionately face execution.

In general, crimes that are viewed as threats to state security or social stability are dealt with most harshly. Individuals from marginalized groups also appear to be at greater risk of receiving a death sentence.

Recent Developments

While the scope of capital punishment remains extensive in China, there have been some incremental moves toward reform in recent years:

  • The Supreme People’s Court regained the sole power of approving death sentences in 2007, ending decentralization to lower courts.
  • New appellate processes were introduced for death penalty cases in 2020 to improve oversight.
  • Amendments in 2011 mandated the Supreme Court’s approval and review for all asset seizures in corruption cases.
  • Between 2011-2016, the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced from 55 to 46.
  • Public discussion of wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice has increased.
  • Calls for more transparency, mandatory defense counsel, recorded interrogations, and improved evidence rules have grown but with limited implementation so far.

Overall, China in recent years has made incremental moves away from the “strike hard” approach. But capital punishment remains entrenched with major structural reforms unlikely. The state still sees the threat of execution as an important tool for maintaining control and social stability.


In summary, China has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world, with Amnesty International estimating 1000s of executions every year. The exact number of crimes punishable by death in China is unknown and fluctuant, but is estimated to be around 55 based on statutes spread across the Criminal Law, national security laws, and other legislation. In practice, the death penalty is used most actively against murderers, drug crimes, corruption, and threats to state power and social stability. Despite some moderate reforms in recent years, China looks unlikely to abolish or dramatically reduce the scope of the death penalty anytime soon.