31 May 2009

Counting Chinese Executions Isn't Easy

Last week, Amnesty International's latest report on the state of human rights throughout the world included new figures for the use of capital punishment in China. As the headline in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post alarmingly put it on Friday (subscription required for full article): "Mainland executions up 260 [percent], report says." Clear evidence of a worsening human rights situation in China? Not really.

What Amnesty's report says is this:
Amnesty International estimates a minimum of 7,000 death sentences were handed down and 1,700 executions took place. However, the authorities refused to make public national statistics on death sentences and executions and the real figure is undoubtedly higher.
Unfortunately, it doesn't offer much context for those three claims, leaving a lot of room for misunderstanding. (For example, what is "the real figure is undoubtedly higher" referring to in the final sentence, the number of death sentences or the number of executions?)

My understanding of what Amnesty does here is catalog all reports of executions that are published in the Chinese press. This is a fraction of the actual total, a closely-guarded figure treated as a "state secret" and unknown to all but a select group of people inside China. In 2007, Amnesty recorded 470 executions but acknowledged clearly that "this number is based on public reports available and serves as an absolute minimum."

A more accurate headline in the SCMP would have been "260 percent increase in the number of executions found by Amnesty in published Chinese reports." When you're dealing with a known portion of an unknown quantity, you simply cannot draw conclusions about the whole based on the part without much more analysis of the relationship between the two.

The fact that Amnesty counted more executions in 2008 compared to 2007 could mean that more executions were carried out. Or it could mean that the Chinese press was given more leeway to report on executions in 2008. Or it could mean that Amnesty had a more attentive team of researchers in 2008. It could even be a combination of all three. What it doesn't mean is that there was a 260 percent increase in the total number of executions in China.

In its report for 2007, Amnesty cites the Dui Hua Foundation's estimate of around 6,000 executions that year—a significant decrease from previous years due to the return of final review over all capital cases to the Supreme People's Court earlier that year. My personal view is that total executions in China probably remained basically flat or decreased slightly in 2008, but even if there was an increase, it would likely only be on the order of 5–10 percent.

We're all grasping at straws and trying to interpret dim shadows thanks to an intentionally opaque system that hides the extent to which capital punishment is used in China. Amnesty's annual recording of executions in the public record provides important data that is really some of the best that's available, but we should all be clear about the serious limits to what it can tell us. The SCMP clearly didn't comprehend that and jumped to unsupportable conclusions in pursuit of an eye-grabbing headline, though Amnesty probably could have done a better job at explaining its own thinking behind this estimate, too.

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