The Death Penalty in China - Part 2

(Boxun)  Armed policemen explain how the death penalty is carried out.  November 26, 2004.

Most ordinary citizens have no chance of going to the killing field to witness executions, so this has added layers of mystery to the process.  There are all sorts of urban legends about those who are shot and those who shoot them.  This is a collection of descriptions provided by a number of armed policemen who have taken part in executions.

The following details are provided by an armed policeman in Zhengzhou (Henan Province) who has participated in multiple executions.

1.  Those who carry out the death penalty are armed policemen.

The masses are not sure about what type of persons have the power or ability to legally take the life of a criminal.  Ever since the founding of the nation, public security officers have been responsible for carrying out death sentences.  Since the reform of 1982, the newly formed armed policemen are responsible for this special assignment.  Executions are part of their normal duties.  Each armed policeman have undergone stringent training in this regard.  But this duty is not performed by just anyone, as the person must have good political and military characteristics as well as strong psychological qualities.  The executioners are therefore the most outstanding people from the corps.

"According to urban legends, the executioners wear surgical masks, gloves and dark glasses.  This is just a legend, which may happen in remote areas.  In the cities, this does not occur because the only reason for armed policemen to wear gloves is to ward off the cold and they wear dark glasses to fend off the sun's rays.  In practice, nobody really uses those things because they get in the way of the execution.  The dark glasses affect vision and the gloves affect the handling of the gun.  It is also alleged that you have to earn three merit points before being allowed to execute prisoners.  That is even more ridiculous.  Executing prisoners is just one of the many duties of the armed policemen."

2.  The bullets used to execute criminals are specially prepared.

"On one occasion, someone asked me if it is true that we have to bayonet someone who doesn't die as a result of the first shot.  How can that be!?  We have a stringent set of procedures here.  When the armed policemen are given the assignment, they have to undergo at least two days of training.  At the killing field, they are required to use only one shot.  The stringent requirement is based upon two reasons: the solemnity of the law as well as humanitarian considerations.  The bullets used to execute criminals are specially prepared to increase the damage to the brain cells, but they are not the 'explosive bullets' that exist in folk legend."

"Each condemned person is brought to the field by at least four armed policemen.  The executioners has only one bullet in his gun, so he is required to be highly accurate.  If there is an error, his assistant is the one who has to apply the coup de grace.  It is wrong to think that the bayonet is used if the first shot does not kill immediately."

3.  On the night before the execution, the cadres at the detention facility will stay in the prisoner's room.

"When the final verdict is handed out, the detention facility will make administrative arrangements.  First of all, the prisoner is transferred to a different room and the cadres will stay there.  Basically, the idea is that they have to watch over the condemned persons to make sure that they do not mutilate themselves, commit suicide or injure others.  Supposedly, on the night before Zhang Jinchu was executed, the facility director personally stayed in his room.

"Almost all condemned prisoners will write to their families.  Those who are not educated well enough will ask others to write on their behalf.  Still, there are some who say nothing or who cry.  It is an extraordinary time for the prisoners on the nights before the execution.  For humanitarian reasons, most of their basic requests will be granted.  They can eat whatever they want, they can smoke as much as they want to but they are not allowed to drink.  Usually, they won't feel like eating anything and they can't sleep either.  Most of them will write their families, and they keep writing non-stop.  Most of those who just watch the outside through the windows are people who came from the outside and rove around to commit crimes.  Most of the prisoners will stay up all night with eyes open, without anyone knowing what they are thinking about inside their heads."

4.  It is necessary to find a killing field outside the city each time.

One executioner tells this writer that up until the moment that they get on the transport vehicle, they still don't know where the killing field is.  By discipline, they cannot ask.

"He feels that this is normal.  It is like that, but his description is not necessarily universal.  No matter where it is, the planning of the killing field is very complicated.  In places such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, there are fixed locations.  In Zhengzhou, due to various factors, there is no fixed location as yet.  Therefore, the killing field is different each time.

"We cannot go out and scout the locations during the day because it attracts too much attention.  So we usually go out at night.  Also, we cannot go in the official court vehicle as we must do so discretely.  There is no security set up at the killing field beforehand.  The location is highly secret, being known to just a few people.  In Zhengzhou, it is harder and harder to find an ideal killing field.  There are several demanding requirements for the location: the road traffic must be ideal; it must not be too far away from the highways; it must have enough space; there must not be too many spectators; it must be easy to carry out the action; there must be a barrier to make sure that a stray bullet won't injure anyone; and things must not be allowed to go awry.

"Sometimes, it is already 2 pm in the afternoon and we are still going around the city.  Usually, two killing fields are selected, with one being the backup in case of the unexpected happening.  But there has never been any special circumstances in Zhengzhou for that to happen.  I was particularly happy with one location, but after a couple of times, the local people deliberately bricked up the place to make it unusable.  As Zhengzhou develops economically, the urban sprawl is spreading quicker and quicker and it gets more difficult to find an ideal location."

5. Some condemned have their trouser legs tied up with hemp ropes.

"Indeed, this is true.  Many criminals are ruthless when they committed crimes while disregarding the value of the lives of others.  But when he is staring at his own death in the face, he can be scared to the point of having contorted facial expressions and become a mental wreck.  When the verdict is handed down, some condemned prisoners will turn ashen grey and their legs and even the whole body will be trembling.  Even before the verdict is read out fully, some people are urinating in their pants and that is not uncommon.  On May 7, 1995, thirty prisoners were executed and one of them collapsed with white foam coming out of his mouth.  When the armed policemen pulled him up, he was like a pile of soft dirt.  He was a coward who had no feelings when he murdered a child who was begging for mercy.

"Many of these prisoners lose their sanity when they have to face their own deaths.  In order to avoid unnecessary complications such as the loss of bladder or stomach control, we tie up their trouser legs with hemp ropes.  Of course, most outside observers will not be able to spot such details."

6. "The Red Terminator" does not remember the face of the condemned.

Someone people say that the condemned prisoners will speak to the armed policemen before the execution.  Actually, this is only a speculation.

"I am an executioner.  When the assignment is handed down, I only know the number of people, each of whom has been assigned a number.  I don't know their names and I don't know their crimes.  We only go by the numbers.  When the prisoners is turned over to us, we have only several minutes of contact with them.  On the transport vehicle, the public security officers may attempt to chat with the prisoners in order to put them at ease.  But we are not allowed to speak to them at all.

"Sometimes, the criminals will tell us, 'When the moment comes, please do it as quickly as possible so that I won't suffer.'  Actually, even if I wish that I could torture these evil people, we have our discipline and we have only one bullet in the gun.  When the moment comes, our only thought will be to get it over with that one shot.  This is the right conferred to us by the people, and we are proud of it.  When the gun goes off, things go red everywhere.  Sometimes, the brain tissue of the prisoner may splash back onto our faces and that is really disgusting.  Sometimes, people may take a while to die.  At those moments, I have an indescribable feeling about how easily a person's life can be terminated in such a pathetic manner."

The armed policeman who uttered those words is only 24 years old.  He has already executed 23 prisoners.  He said that his strongest reactions after executing someone is, "Never commit crimes!  Never become an enemy of the people!"


I have participated in executions for half a dozen times, the most recent being in 1995.  At the time, I was in the anti-riot squad.  It was a summer day after the rain, and the killing field was a garbage dump.  We faced the sea and suddenly a water-spout appeared.  I thought this was extraordinary, but the local people assured me that it was a common sight.  What I remember most was the stench of the garbage.  I and another comrade escorted a 23-year-old male who was guilty of murdering an elementary school student during a robbery.  On the way to the killing field, he kept saying, "I deserve to die.  I have incurred the wrath of the people."  Eighteen people were executed that day, including one who was executed in secret because he was a police colleague who committed a murder during a robbery.

I also remember escorting a 57-year-old peasant who was found guilty of deliberate murder.  He kept saying, "I did not assault him until he came to my home" and he did not think that he deserved to die.  In order to change the subject, I asked him what he ate at the prison.  Then he got diverted because he got to eat rice for the first time last night in eight months because he only had wotou (窝头) before.  I asked him if his family has come by to visit and he said nobody came but they had sent some new clothes that he was now wearing.  He was calm.  I looked at this clothes and they didn't impress me.  Since he had to be secured with ropes, he even  had his trouser legs bounded with rope.  His clothes were torn.  So I brought the verdict document to him and I told him that he did not lose anything in the bargain because one life was being traded for another (at the time, I could not think of anything better to say).  He agreed, and he was cooperative all the way to his execution.

There was another 60-something-year-old man, who made off with more than 600,000 yuan in graft payoffs.  In the end, more than 200,000 yuan were still unaccounted for, so he got the death sentence.  He was crying out that he was innocent all the way, so we had to pull the rope around his neck to stifle him and we almost strangled him.  At a moment like that, we don't worry about anything else other than accomplishing our specific mission.

The gun is fired by an armed policeman aiming at the back of the head.  The rehearsal takes place for two days in a row beforehand.  There is a shallow ditch in front of each prisoner.  The prisoners kneel in front of the ditch.  Upon the order, "Bang" goes the gun and the blood and brain issues are splattered forward and the person topples over.  Then it was time for us to turn around and leave.  Sometimes, we may hear one or two shots behind us.  That would be the medical doctor firing the coup de grace.  The prisoners are already dead, but if their bodies are still stirring about, they are given another shot.  We get back into the vehicle and we look outside the window.  The prisoners' heads are covered with plastic bags which collect the blood.  The bodies are place into cardboard coffins and loaded onto trucks.  Sometimes, the coffins are too short, so that the legs show on the outside.  The trucks go directly to the crematorium.

There are no spectators at the scene of the execution.  We maintain three rings of security.  Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds.  On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.


I have acted as the guard in two executions, and I was about 10 meters away from the actual executions.

I remember that one prisoner telling the armed policeman: "Don't get nervous!  If you get nervous, you make me nervous too!"

I remember that one time, a prisoner turned around to tell the prison supervisor (note: the prisoner supervisor was required to be present at the execution), and said: "Supervisor, I thank you for taking care of me.  I hope to come back to visit you some day for a drink."  This was enough to make prison supervisor turn as white as a sheet, but we thought it was funny.


Over here, all executions are done by armed policeman at the detention center.  Each time, two men are assigned to a prisoner, one to execute and another as the back-up.


The death penalty here is carried out by the judicial police.

When we arrive at the killing field, the prisoners are made to kneel down.  We tell them to open their mouths because if the bullet passes through their mouths, they won't look too bad afterwards.  Then we aim at the back of the head according to the 54 style and we pull the trigger.  Usually, they die with one shot and there is no need for a coup de grace.


The death penalty is presently carried out by the judicial police using poison injection.  In the past, the executioners are selected among new recruits in the armed police.  The prisoners are brought to the execution field and forced to kneel down in a row.  The executioners are armed with rifles carrying bayonets and they stand about two steps away from the condemned.  Then the medical doctor points the bayonet towards the position of the heart from the back, in order to ensure that the bullet will hit the heart.  After confirming the identity of the subject, an armed police officer will verbally order the death sentence to be carried out.

The atmosphere on the killing field is terrifying, so some new recruits are bound to be scared.  Some will not be able to pull the trigger.  Other will jump aside before they fire (usually, to the right).  After firing the first shot, the medical doctor will come forward to examine.  If the inmate is not dead yet (normally, the first shot does not kill immediately), then additional shots will be fired.  The most that I have ever seen is five shots.

After verifying that the prisoners are dead, the public security, court of law and the armed police personnel will withdraw.  The doctors on the side will rush up to remove the body organs if nobody wants the body.  


In Hainan, the death penalty is carried out by not shooting at the head.  I understand that elsewhere on the mainland, they shoot at the brain from behind.  As a result, the heads are usually blown off.

This is what I usually see.  I heard that one prisoner was especially resilient and just would not die.  In the end, an armed policeman had to shoot him eight times until his head looked like a beehive.

I do not believe there are any organ sales in my district.  The corpses of the prisoners are transported directly to the crematorium.


Our killing fields are not fixed, as there are basically two different situations.  

In the typical situation, the armed policemen proceed in the morning to the prison and take out the prisoners who are tied up with ropes.  They are usually taken out eight at a time.  If there are more than eight, then it may be done over two or more days to execute all of them.  Usually this is done at around 8 am.  The killing field is a small place with limited space.  We go to the command center to listen to the final verdicts for the prisoners read out one at a time.  After all the verdicts have been read out, the armed policemen escort them to the small open area behind the detention center.  Then each is shot with one bullet from an automatic rifle.

In the second situation, there is a large meeting to read the verdict openly to the public.  Afterwards, the prisoners are taken to a killing field whose location varies.  We once did it on the roadside of a newly built highway on the south side of the city.  After the transport vehicle arrived at the spot, the traffic police immediately stopped all traffic.  The entire process from the moment that the prisoners were brought down from the transport vehicle to the shooting itself took less than one minute.  The hospital ambulances were waiting on the side to remove the body organs.

While the verdict is being announced, the prisoner has a small rope around the neck.  If he should start to yell out that he is innocent, the judicial policeman will yank on the rope to prevent that.  One female prisoner (who was found guilty of murdering people via poisoning) was choked until her facial expressions became completely contorted so it must have been tough.  The prisoners go quietly, and I have never heard anyone yelling "I will come back and be another hero in twenty years' time."

The most disgusting execution that I have witnessed was truly inhumane.  On the night before the execution, the squad leader of the judicial police came to the detention center and assembled all those who were scheduled to be executed the next day.  Then he waved a small flag and pronounced in a heavy local accent: "In order to express the humanitarianism of the revolution during your execution, we will rehearse once.  Stand at attention!  Kneel down!"  Then came the sounds of guns being loaded.  It was easy to imagine how the prisoners felt, because this was worse than death.  It was fucking torture.

So far, these are just words.  Part 3 contains a series of photographs about how such an execution is carried out.  You are warned that the photographs are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC.  But you can't be thinking about the death penalty properly as long as the physical act is still an abstraction.  This is what it is like.

There are two principal reasons why people object to the death penalty.

First, it is cruel and unusual punishment.  Without question, blowing half of someone's head off is exactly that.

Second, the death penalty may be administered wrongly to innocent people, especially those who are poor and marginalized.  Part 1 contains the case histories of two  innocent people who were lucky to be able to get off.  The probability of wrongful execution can be reduced with an effective system of legal representation.

This becomes a matter of social prioritization.  In the United States, a death penalty inmate can file appeals with free legal representation.  The process may take 10 years and tens of millions of dollars before all appeals are exhausted.  This is the same government system that is being slammed for failing to provide adequate social services to large numbers of socially vulnerable people.  There are many more poor and desperate people in China who need help.

This is not helped by the fact that the detailed statistics and cases are treated as national secrets in China.  It is alleged that more than 10,000 executions occur each year.  The media provide the details on a small number of cases, but they are the most notorious cases such as mass murderers (e.g. Ma Jiajue).  This is a deliberate strategy in that anyone who objects to the death penalty in principle will find himself seeming to defend evil incarnate instead.  This is the same strategy that is used in banning Internet sites (e.g by highlighting the most obnoxious pornographic sites) and books (e.g. by highlighting the most repulsive pornographic novels).  Meanwhile, there is no sense of how many innocent people might be executed each year.

There is the alternative of a life sentence in lieu of execution.  In the United States, it will cost the state more than one million dollars to place a person in jail for life under standard conditions.  This is the same government system that is being slammed for failing to provide adequate social services to large numbers of socially vulnerable people.  There are many more poor and desperate people in China who need help.  Jail conditions in China are significantly worse, so that sentencing someone to life in prison is cruel and unusual too.

I don't know what the answer is.

There will be those who think the answer is democracy, by kneejerk reflex.  No, it isn't.  Suppose you let the people decide on this: either you shoot the 10,000 people per year, or else you pay 100 yuan per year for their life sentences.  How do you think they are going to vote?  Shoot them.  ASAP.