Deathrow in China, 2003

A rare glimpse behind the deathrow in China

In late June 2003, in Wuhan in central China, women on the death row prepared for death.

Guards gave a prisoner her execution outfit; others were being fed fresh fruit, dumplings, and in one case, a special last meal: hot pies from McDonalds. The prisoners play cards, wrote their writing final letters and wept on the morning of their executions. They would soon be dispatched in the traditional way, with a bullet to the back of the head.

These intimate photos showed a rare glimpse into the Chinese prison system. Four condemned women laughed and joked with their guards in the photos, which were censored in China since they were taken, lest there be sympathy for the prisoners, all convicted of drug trafficking.


Particularly evocative were images of one inmate – 25-year-old He Xiuling, who was the youngest prisoner – who veered from joviality to despair. She worried that wearing a white T-shirt made her looks unflattering, and a prison guard found a black T-shirt for her (above). To her last day, she believed that her sentence would be commuted to 15 years in prison, telling others that she would still only be 40 when she got out.

He was a young woman from the countryside who migrated to Wuhan and got caught up in the heroin trade via her boyfriend. She was advised by police to confess in hope of a lighter sentence, which never came. With no wealth or political connections to save her, it took just 15 months from the day of her arrest to her execution – which was timed to coincide with a United Nations anti-drugs day and show that China was tough on drug trade. (The boyfriend, who had used a false name, was never traced and arrested).


More photos here

A Wuhan paper also wanted to put together a photoessay for the anti-drugs day and a photographer, Yan Yuhong, pitched the story to the prison officials who agreed. Yan remembered:

I was there from 9pm the night before the execution until the moment they were led away to their deaths [which took place at 9am]. The women were a bit surprised when they saw a photographer, but after a while we communicated and they accepted me.

I couldn’t believe [He] was worried about her appearance. It didn’t seem as if it could be important to me. But she wanted to look her best, even though she was going to die. She put on a white shirt at first but then she said to the police officer, ‘It makes me look fat.’ So they got a black top for her instead.

Throughout the night, the prisoners and the warders were joking with each other. They had a good relationship. They were like sisters. They were telling jokes to each other and telling each other about their families.

‘On the morning of the execution, one of the other condemned prisoners asked for her clothes to be given to a friend in the prison, who is poor and didn’t have any decent clothes of her own. What surprised me was that the prisoners had such a good relationship with each other. You might expect it of students at college or soldiers serving in the army together, but not among condemned prisoners. They had a real camaraderie and I hadn’t expected that. They looked after each other, they fed each other and they cared for each other.

What I saw changed the way I thought about these people. I pitied them and I felt very sorry for them. They didn’t do anything violent. They were just ordinary people. They are criminals, but they are human, too. They have feelings, and they have a good side as well as a bad side.

Yan’s paper actually did not publish the photos, deeming them politically sensitive. They were published Southern Weekend a few days later without much fanfare. In 2011, Phoenix Television, a private broadcaster based in Hong Kong, featured them in a documentary – and the photos became widely circulated on social media.

The photos were a rare glimpse into capital punishment in China, the country which accounts for 50%-60% of global executions (estimates of death sentences in China carried out vary from 2,000 to 4,000 sentences annually; in comparison, the United States executes around 20-50 people annually). The support of death penalty in China always enjoyed high public support – 95% in 1995 – but has been slowly coming down to ~80% in early 2000s and ~70% in 2020. Yan also notes that he too supports the death penalty.

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