Although it remains the clear global leader in use of the death penalty, China saw a precipitous 75% drop in executions between 2002 and 2012. The Economist’s Gady Epstein describes how this came about:
One man began turning this culture round. Never a household name, Xiao Yang served as president of the Supreme People’s Court from 1998 to 2008. Exceptionally for that post, Mr Xiao was qualified, possessing a degree in law. Neither he nor a deputy at the court, Liu Jiachen, who helped him, can be counted as radicals. Rather, they wanted a more professional, accountable and methodical judiciary—especially in handling capital offences. Their urge to modernise found a growing base of support within the system. One of Mr Xiao’s professors at Beijing’s Renmin University in the 1960s, Gao Mingxuan, was an influential legal figure and, though viewed as a conservative, was an advocate of reducing executions. People who graduated from law school in the 1980s and 1990s—some of them avowed abolitionists as young scholars—were now up-and-coming officials, judges and court advisers.
Daniel Yu, a legal scholar who knew many in this group, says they were keenly aware of a global mood turning against the use of the death penalty. They were equally aware how much of an outlier China was. The country’s taste for execution had become a source of embarrassment. [Source]
While the article notes that the death penalty’s scope has been somewhat reduced—crimes such as tomb-robbing and stealing prehistoric fossils were excluded in 2011—2013 has seen the notable expansion of possible capital punishment to serious polluters. At the Council on Foreign Relations, Margaret K. Lewis describes the use of execution and other harsh punishments for political and economic ends:
Although pollution, food safety, and financial markets do not at first glance appear to be connected, taken together, the Chinese government’s rhetoric suggests a more robust use of criminal law for economic ends. As explained in more detail in my paper, China’s instrumental use of criminal law is not new. However, recent developments indicate a possible turn to a sustained, sophisticated, and resolute response to economically detrimental activities, not the sporadic crackdowns that have thus far punctuated the decades of China’s rapid economic growth.
This is not to say that China does not care about the physical harm caused by pollution and tainted products. Instead, it merely posits that the harsh punishments are better understood as also serving the derivative goal of bolstering public confidence and, in turn, benefiting the economy. […] [Source]
While neither Party nor public yet seems ready for abolition of the death penalty, individual cases have stirred up fierce opposition, like those of Nie Shubin, who likely died for a crime he did not commit, Deng Chengjie, killed and cremated without notification of his family, and Wu Ying, whom many supporters felt had fallen victim to a lack of political connections. In cases of corrupt officials like former railways minister Liu Zhijun, on the other hand, many have expressed scorn for any punishment short of execution.