Posted by Max Fisher on November 5, 2012, Washington Post

Chinese police lead a condemned man into a special execution van to be put to death. (AFP/Getty Images)

China is the world’s leader in capital punishment, executing “thousands” every year, according to Amnesty International’s best guess of the officially secret statistic. A U.S.-based NGO estimates 4,000 executions in 2011 alone, which is actually half of their projected 8,000 in 2007. By comparison, second-ranked Iran used the death penalty 360 times in 2011. The U.S., ranked fifth, used it 43 times.

Another practice often accompanies China’s capital punishment: organ transplants. In 2009, government officials publicly acknowledged that executed prisoners provided over 65 percent of organ transplants. The health ministry also said that 10,000 organ transplant operations are performed annually.

The numbers are unsettling. We don’t know how many thousands of prisoners China executed in 2009, but if they provided organs for 65 percent of that year’s 10,000 surgeries, it would suggest most or perhaps close to all of the prisoners had their organs removed after their deaths.

The Chinese government has been working to reform its capital punishment system, which may explain how it could have cut the number of executions in half in only four years. Still, China uses a uniquely broad definition of what can receive the death penalty. Earlier this year, a 28-year-old woman was sentenced to death for defaulting on a $56 million loan. In past years, Chinese executions have been carried out with a single gunshot to the head, although the state is attempting to shift toward lethal injections. Because demand is high and the facilities can be expensive, the state deploys special police buses designed to administer the injection.

China is also working on reducing its addiction to death row organs. According to the 2009 BBC story, about 1.5 million people in China needed organ transplants at the time, a staggeringly high demand that was helping to drive a dangerous and criminal black market in illegal organ harvesting. The state was hoping to curb this by encouraging more voluntary donors, although officials acknowledged it would be difficult to overcome cultural taboos against the practice. (Presumably, the executed prisoners share these taboos.) They launched pilot programs in a few parts of the country to solicit voluntary organ donors.

Did the plan work? It’s not really clear as the state has not released data from the program. But, on Friday, officials announced that they would roll out the program nationwide sometime early next year, hoping to reduce the dependency on prisoners’ organs. The country’s goal is to abolish the practice outright within five years. Officials are also hoping to design a new system to fairly allocate transplants, a process that in the past has “been criticized as opaque, profit-driven and unethical,” as the Associated Press puts it.