The number of executions is a state secret, so the human rights group's estimate is based on official Chinese media reports of cases. For the first half of 1994, Amnesty has collated reports of 696 executions, compared with 392 in the same period of 1993. This may be only a fraction of the total, because many executions are not reported and Amnesty's trawl of the Chinese press cannot be comprehensive. According to some estimates, the actual figure could be 10 times higher.
The death sentence in China is routine, even for non-violent crimes.
Amnesty's figures include 33 people executed in May in Guangdong province for stealing cars. Last Friday, Chinese newspapers publicised the executions of six people for forging VAT invoices.
Anti-corruption and anti- crime crackdowns were particularly fierce this year before the celebrations for the 45th anniversary of the People's Republic on 1 October. On one day alone, a week before the holiday, 45 people were shot in Wuhan, the biggest mass execution in that city since 1983.
But the relationship between the death penalty and a lucrative trade in human organs has shocked international opinion. Human Rights Watch/Asia.
says it is the increased use of capital punishment that is 'driving' the organ transplant industry, rather than vice-versa. 'However, demand for transplantable organs may pose an incentive for courts to expedite killings of people whose guilt is in doubt or who might otherwise be spared.'
Over the past few years, the number of transplant operations has steadily increased because of advances in Chinese medical science and facilities.
Kidney transplants rose from 840 in 1988 to 1,905 in 1992, according to a mainland journal. This raises the question of where the extra kidneys were procured. Human Rights Watch/Asia estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 organs, mainly kidneys and corneas, have been harvested annually from executed prisoners.
Until 1991, China denied using prisoners' organs, but there was already widespread evidence of the practice. The procedures were spelt out in a secret 1984 legal directive: 'Where it is genuinely necessary . . . a surgical vehicle from the health department may be permitted to drive on to the execution grounds to remove the organs, but it is not permissible to use a vehicle bearing health department insignia, or to wear white clothing.
Guards must remain posted around the execution grounds while . . . organ removal is going on.'
The document stated that consent for organ removal must be obtained from the prisoner. But human rights groups cite frequent abuses of this regulation.
According to a former judge quoted by Human Rights Watch/Asia, condemned prisoners are typically taken in leg-irons to an interrogation room to hear their death warrant being read. The prisoners are placed in a chair, their wrists bound, and another rope tied around their waist. After sentence is read, the prisoner, as a 'security precaution', remains bound to the chair for the rest of the night. At dawn he or she is driven to the execution ground, a thin rope tied around the neck and gripped tightly by a guard to prevent the prisoner calling out. At no stage are prisoners asked if they are willing to allow their organs to be removed after execution.
Human Rights Watch/Asia says officials in some parts of China resort to illegal methods of execution in order to preserve the organs they want to sell. A former Shanghai police official is quoted as saying: 'In order to preserve the eyes (to sell corneas) the prisoner is shot in the heart. That is what happens. If they need the heart, the prisoner is shot in the head.'
Money is the key to the trade in human organs. China's hospitals are starved of funds, so foreigners are a welcome source of revenue. Many patients arrive from Hong Kong, where there is a chronic shortage of organ donors because of traditional Chinese beliefs that a body should be buried intact.
A survey in the colony of 26 patients who received kidney transplants in China during the 1980s found that, even then, the going rate was between dollars 13,000 and dollars 25,000 (pounds 8,000-pounds 15,000).
Hong Kong doctors try to warn patients of the risks of going to China. In June 1993, the Journal of the Hong Kong Medical Association compared local transplant patients with those who had travelled to the mainland. 'The first-year mortality was four times that of transplants done locally, and there was a marked increase in morbidity related to chronic hepatitis B and C viral infections, often acquired after the transplant procedures,' it said.
Legislation is under discussion in the colony to limit the trade in human organs. But even doctors opposed to the practice recognise a moral conflict.
Patients facing death can be desperate, said a senior urologist at a public hospital. 'If we cannot perform sufficient numbers of transplants in Hong Kong, then you cannot really point an accusing finger at the patient. They have no choice.'