China has ordered judges to use the death penalty more sparingly by showing leniency for murderers who cooperate with authorities and white collar criminals who help recoup their ill-gotten gains, the government said Friday.

The order is the latest effort by Beijing to reform capital punishment in China, which is believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than the rest of the world combined.

"Capital punishment should only be given to an extremely small number of serious offenders," said a statement posted Friday on the Supreme Court's Web site explaining the new order. The order was issued to provincial courts on Wednesday, it said, without releasing the full text.

When possible, the statement said, judges should sentence an offender to death but with a two-year reprieve — a penalty often commuted to life in prison if they behave well in jail.

The order said crimes of passion, such as the murder of a family member or neighbor, should not automatically result in the death penalty if compensation is paid to the victim's family. Those convicted of economic crimes should also receive lighter penalties if they help authorities recover the money, it said.

China regularly executes people for economic, nonviolent and political crimes.

On Tuesday, a former official with the Agriculture Bank of China was executed for taking bribes and embezzling bank funds worth about $2 million, according to local media.

In July, the country's former top drug regulator was executed for taking millions of dollars in bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic that killed at least 10 people.

China doesn't officially release death sentence figures.

Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770 people in 2005 — about 80 percent of the world's total. But the true number is thought to be many times higher.

While the Supreme Court order called for greater restraint in ordering executions, it still upheld the use of the death penalty as a deterrent.

"We must hand down and carry out immediate capital punishment in regard to heinous cases, with ironclad evidence that result in serious social damage," it said.

An amendment to China's capital punishment law, enacted in November, requires the Supreme People's Court to approve all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.

The change followed reports of executions of wrongly convicted people and criticism that lower courts arbitrarily impose the death sentence.