A draft amendment to the country's criminal code proposes cutting 13 "economy-related, non-violent offenses" from the list of 68 crimes punishable by the death penalty, the official Xinhua New Agency said.
It is not known when the draft will become law. Xinhua said it was submitted for a first reading to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. A draft usually has two or three readings before it is voted on.
Joshua Rosenzweig, research manager for the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation, said the draft was welcome but was unlikely to reduce the number of executions in China if it becomes law because it targets crimes that seldom, if ever, have the death penalty applied to them.
Critics say the death penalty in China is used to punish too many crimes and is applied too often. They also say the judicial system is overly secretive in deciding on death penalty cases.
Rosenzweig said there was still pressure to have criminals serve longer sentences, with the draft also proposing that the maximum fixed-term sentence be raised from 20 to 25 years.
The draft includes a proposal to abolish the death sentence for people 75 years of age and older, which Rosenzweig said was largely symbolic because there were so few death sentences for criminals in that age group.
The website of the NPC, which opened its bimonthly session Monday, confirmed the draft is being considered but did not give any details.
Xinhua said the crimes to be dropped from the list of those punishable by death included carrying out fraudulent activities with financial bills and letters of credit, and forging and selling invoices to avoid taxes. Others included smuggling cultural relics and precious metals such as gold out of the country.
It quoted Li Shishi, director of legislative affairs of the NPC Standing Committee, as saying that because of China's economic development, dropping the death penalty from some economic-related crimes would not hurt social stability or public security.
In recent years China has made several changes to how it decides and carries out the death penalty.
In May, new rules were issued saying evidence obtained through torture and threats cannot be used in criminal prosecutions and said such evidence would be thrown out in death penalty cases that are under appeal.
Those new regulations made it clear that evidence with unclear origins, confessions obtained through torture, and testimony acquired through violence and threats are invalid. It was the first time Beijing had explicitly stated that evidence obtained under torture or duress was illegal and inadmissible in court.
The rulings are important for death penalty cases, where a flawed system has led to the deaths of several criminal suspects by torture in detention centers.
In 2008, China's top court said about 15 percent of death sentence verdicts by lower courts were found to have problems, the official China Daily newspaper reported in May.
http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/xinwen/syxw/2010-08/16/content_1587905.htm (in Chinese)