China executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, with its state-sanctioned system cloaked in official secrecy, said a report released in Hong Kong today by human rights monitor Amnesty International.
Several thousand people were executed in 2016 by China alone, while at least 1,032 were executed in 23 other countries globally, Amnesty said.
The estimates contradict official state figures, which put the number of executions at 85 between 2014 and 2016. Amnesty's investigation found news reports of at least 931 individuals executed between 2014 and 2016, while the official state database showed only 85 entries.
"There's absolutely no way to know whether the number of executions is going up or down in China," despite claims by the Chinese government to be killing fewer and killing carefully, said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director for East Asia.
Bequelin urged the government to publish full figures. Chinese legal scholars have also put estimates of executions at several thousand per year.
Most of the "missing" executions that Amnesty found related to drugs and terrorism charges, and a disproportionate number of those executed were poor, less educated and from racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
No figures for foreigners executed
There are also no figures for foreigners who have been executed, despite media reports to the contrary. Executions for economic crimes have been vastly limited in the last three years, said the report.
China classifies most information on the death penalty as state secrets, and the death penalty can also be dealt out for violating this secrecy.
There are 46 crimes which are punishable by death in China. The top three were murder (57 percent), robbery (23 percent) and drug-related offences (13 percent).
Requests for information from the Chinese government by Amnesty went unanswered.
Globally, countries are moving away from the death penalty, with 141 countries abolishing it in law or practice, according to Amnesty. Many see it as a cruel and ineffective way of deterring crime.
A study published in 2009 by the University of Colorado-Boulder showed most criminologists did not believe capital punishment was a deterrent to homicides.
Apart from China, just four countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan - are responsible for 87 percent of all recorded executions, said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary-general. "The death penalty is itself living on borrowed time," he said.
The ranking does not include Vietnam, because the country did not provide yearly breakdowns, instead providing data from August 2013 to June 2016.
Amnesty has been monitoring official records of executions worldwide for 40 years. The concern with China is that capital punishment is used as a political tool.
China's courts have a more than 99 percent conviction rate, and are not independent from the Communist Party, leading to questions about whether people are getting a fair trial.
"Over the past few years the risk of people being executed for crimes they did not commit has caused increasing alarm among the public in China," said the report.
It cited the example of Nie Shubin, who was wrongfully convicted and executed 21 years ago for murder, and exonerated last December by the Supreme People's Court.