BEIJING // Human-rights groups have cautioned that China's decision to cut the number of crimes for which the death penalty applies may do little to reduce the number of executions.
A series of nonviolent crimes, ranging from smuggling cultural relics out of China to issuing types of false tax invoices, are among the 13 crimes for which people will no longer be executed.
The decision, ratified on Friday by the country's legislature, the National People's Congress, leaves 55 crimes, including drug-smuggling and rape, for which the death penalty is still in force.
People older than 75 are also exempted after Friday's decision, unless they commit murder "with exceptional cruelty".
The death penalty has rarely been applied in the categories now exempted, so activists say a significant reduction in executions is unlikely.
While this week's decision was "a positive move", the death penalty in China is "still shrouded in secrecy", a spokesman for the Asia desk of the International Federation for Human Rights said on condition of anonymity. He described as "a horrible statistic" the belief that China executes more people than all other countries in the world combined.
"We are not sure the reduction of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied will have any impact on reducing that [total number of executions]," he said.
According to a report by Amnesty International, the total is thought to run into thousands each year and, while some executions are given publicity in the state-run press, China refuses to give complete figures.
There are, the spokesman added, "still many concerns" about the death penalty and how it is applied in China.
"International law does not prohibit it, but the trend favours abolition," he said. "International law requires that it's reserved for the most serious crimes and a guarantee of fair trial rights. None of these safeguards exists in China. We continue to call for the abolition of the death penalty in China."
The decision to reduce the number of crimes the death penalty applies to comes four years after China introduced rules that give the final say on executions to the central Supreme Court.
This move was an attempt to ensure that capital punishment is applied consistently nationwide, amid concerns over the standards of local courts. The rule has cut by 10 per cent the number of people executed, according to state media.
Concerns remain, however, that confessions are sometimes obtained through torture and that appeals processes remain inadequate, with people often executed within days of sentence.
In one high-profile case last year, the supposed victim of a farmer who confessed to murder turned up alive, illustrating the risk of miscarriages of justice. The farmer, Zhao Zuohai, spent 11 years behind bars after reportedly confessing to murder because he was beaten and threatened by police.
Yet while many rights organisations and legal experts from overseas and in certain cases within China have expressed opposition to the death penalty, there is widespread support for it in China.
Only this week, new proposals that would mean organ traffickers faced the death penalty were announced amid disquiet over the growth in the trade.
Prior to this week's rule that largely exempts those older than 75 from capital punishment, those younger than 18 at the time of the offence and women pregnant at the time of trial were the only groups that could not be executed.
The crimes for which offenders are now exempted also includes the smuggling of protected species of animals and products made from them, excavating and stealing ancient human and other vertebrate fossils and theft.
Also, judges can no longer hand out a death sentence for instructing others to commit crimes, committing fraud through the use of forged documents and stealing from ancient cultural sites or tombs.
In November last year, Li Haitao, the head of a cultural relics authority in the city of Chengde, north-east of Beijing, was executed after being convicted of embezzlement after making hundreds of thousands of dollars from stealing relics from the city's 18th-century imperial summer villa park and replacing them with fakes or lower quality artefacts.