Powerful arguments in favor of abolishing the death penalty in China have been voiced at a recent conference which marks a significant step forward in one of the country's most sensitive human rights areas.
This was the first debate of its kind to be reported in the Chinese press and the abolitionist argument was put more strongly than before, reflecting a growing willingness on the part of the authorities to let the issues be aired.
Nearly all the Chinese academics taking part supported abolition, and called for a start to be made by strictly limiting its use.
Beijing keeps the number of executions secret, but in 2001 Amnesty International recorded more than 4,000 death sentences and nearly 2,500 executions in China - far more than the combined total for the rest of the world.
China uses the death penalty for a wide range of "economic crimes", including corruption and the theft of antiques, as well as for murder.
Execution is usually carried out by a bullet to the head, although some provinces are experimenting with using lethal injections.
Foreign specialists, while warning that an academic conference may not have a direct impact on government policy, have been encouraged by its positive tone on the end of the death penalty.
One Chinese participant recalled spending time in prison in the company of a condemned 18-year-old.
"At seven on the last morning, he was eating gruel with me. An hour later, he was on the execution field," said Professor Qiu Xinglong, a leading advocate for reform.
"From that moment on, I have been haunted by this question: why must we cruelly kill a fellow human being?"
Legal experts at the conference argued that China will need to limit the use of capital punishment when it ratifies the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that abolition was the mark of a "civilized society".
The conference, organized jointly by the law institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Danish Institute of Human Rights, was held last month at Xiangtan in Hunan province.
"We were positively surprised that the tone and the discussion was so open and to the point," said Hatla Thelle from the Danish institute.
"All [the Chinese scholars] agreed that the death penalty should be restricted to intentional murder of especially violent character, and most favored ultimate abolition."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003