RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
China executes more people each year than the rest of the world put together. That's according to human rights groups. China's government doesn't release execution figures, but it appears that executions in China are declining. Last year, an estimated 3,000 people were put to death. That's down from an average of 15,000 per year in the 1990s. In the 1980s, 24,000 people were sentenced to death in one year alone.
Gady Epstein is the China correspondent for The Economist magazine. And he's written an article about changes in how the death penalty is applied in China. Gady Epstein joins us from Beijing. Thank you so much for being with us.
GADY EPSTEIN: Thank you for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, if we could back up a bit and have you explain how China came to have such high numbers of executions in the first place?
EPSTEIN: In the 1980s, as China had opened up politically, one way of maintaining social order was to institute a very tough criminal justice system. And they did this with these Strike Hard campaigns that started in 1983. And that's the year - that first year of Strike Hard is when they sentenced 24,000 people to death. These campaigns continue through the '80s and '90s.
MARTIN: You have a provocative quotation in your piece when you talk about that period of time. You write: The government believes that, quote, "When there is a chance to kill or not to kill, choose to kill."
EPSTEIN: That's right, and these were in cases not just of murder, but of aggravated robbery, drug trafficking. And so, when the lower courts were told to err on the side of execution, they did.
MARTIN: How do we know the executions have been declining now? I mean, who tracks these statistics? Where do they get their information?
EPSTEIN: The actual figures are a state secret. So there's only one group that really tries to put an estimate on the number of executions in China. That's the Dui Hua Foundation out of San Francisco. This number - this is an imperfect science. So Dui Hua is doing this based on a little bit of guesswork. But scholars broadly agree with their figures.
So, in 2002, their estimate is that they've executed 12,000 people. 2012, their estimate is that they've executed 3,000 people, a decline of 75 percent.
MARTIN: Do you have any idea what has motivated this change by the government? Is it purely pragmatic; you can't just kill everyone was accused of a certain level of crime? Or is their moral dimension to it? Is it just embarrassing?
EPSTEIN: I think it's a combination of those. One significant milestone came in 2007 when the Supreme People's Court began to review every single death penalty case, and probably is the one factor that's most chiefly responsible for the reduction in executions overall. I think the people who were evolving in the system in the '80s and '90s - people who were trained in law - they paid attention to the fact that international public opinion was horrified at the number of people being executed in China, to the extent that it was kind of a public issue.
And this gets at why this decline was not really well noticed, is because the number of people that China executes every year is not widely publicized in itself, because it's a state secret. So similarly, the decline has happened very quietly.
MARTIN: I imagine though there would be critics out there who would then argue that keeping that same person in prison for a life sentence is also expensive.
EPSTEIN: I don't think that's an issue that's there. They don't spend that kind of money that America spends to incarcerate its convicts. The conditions here for people in prison are pretty bleak. Actually, what I think that raises is another point, which is that even though many fewer people are being executed, a lot of those people who aren't being executed are being put away for life in a system that still doesn't guarantee a fair trial - and far from it.
MARTIN: Gady Epstein is the China correspondent for The Economist. He joined us from Beijing. Gady, thank you so much for taking the time.
EPSTEIN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.