CHEUNG Tze-keung knew his fate the night before his last appeal failed. Shackled to the floor, his handcuffs would have been removed for the final time for the last meal. In China, the condemned - invariably men - are readied for execution in batches. Brought out from their cells, they squat in front of a bowl of rice and pork under the eyes of their guards. Then the final rituals begin. The handcuffs and shackles are tightened, the prisoners gagged. In the brightly lit cell the long wait for dawn begins. They often spend the night chained to a chair, watched over to prevent suicide or an act of rebellion. Yet a final appeal for commutation has kept a lingering hope alive even though everyone knows an exception is never made. The decision to carry out the ultimate sanction has usually been taken a long time before. Yet there are delays. The most important executions take place before a public holiday - Spring Festival, National Day or a key Communist Party meeting like a national congress - but in big cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing or Shanghai, they routinely occur every month, usually on a Saturday morning. THE footsteps come, often just before dawn. The prisoner is told his petition has been rejected. The jailer is waiting to take photographs and goes through the final identification, examining moles and other identifying marks. The next visitor is the prison doctor, who takes blood samples and perhaps injects the condemned with an anti-coagulant, if the police have sold the organs for transplantation. According to Asia Watch, up to 90 per cent of kidneys for transplant come from executed prisoners. If the executions take place during a political campaign such as the recent Strike Hard campaign, the prisoners are then readied to be driven through the city to an execution rally. There is no time for breakfast or famous last words and the prisoner has long made out his final will. He is trussed up with additional ropes and a cord looped around his neck. From now on a guard will stand behind the prisoner, ready to yank the cord to stop him from shouting. Another guard ties up the bottom of the trousers to prevent the prisoner, when he loses control of his bodily functions, from soiling the floor. As many of the condemned find it difficult to walk, their shoes are tied to their feet so they do not fall off as they are dragged along the ground. Finally, a board is hung around his neck recording his name and crimes, and he is lifted on to the back of a truck. Often there is a truck for each prisoner and the convoy is preceded by motorcycle outriders and officials' cars. An ambulance follows. If there is a rally, office staff and workers will have been given free tickets and instructed to fill a local sports stadium where the local police chief and state prosecutors will be seated at a table. Usually, the prisoners arrive early and have to wait with their guards, like actors in a play, before marching into the centre. In the past, the police would even slice a prisoner's windpipe to ensure he had no chance for a final act of defiance by uttering counter-revolutionary slogans. More recently, if there is time for tea or hot buns, the guards may offer to feed the prisoners by hand. Then the prisoners are frog-marched into the centre by their three guards and with their heads pushed down, the crimes and punishment are read out as a warning to all. Then the prisoners, with a final chance to snatch a glimpse of their loved ones, are quickly taken out and driven to the execution grounds. Every county town has one, usually on a river bank or some other convenient piece of waste land within an easy drive. Beijing has several, one near the Marco Polo bridge. The executioner, wearing white gloves, usually sits in the cab next to the driver while the other two hold the prisoner, lift him off the truck and march him to the place within a roped-off area. The prisoners, usually a batch of a dozen or so, but sometimes as many as 50, are lined up and at a command the executioners go to the back of their victims and aim the gun barrel to the back of the head. In imperial China, it was traditional for the executioner to avoid facing his victim for fear the deceased's soul could return to haunt him. A flare goes up and the squad leader blows a whistle. Sometimes the nervous soldiers miss the first time and take two or three shots. Then a medic walks around the bodies, checking the pulses. A police photographer takes a final photograph for the files and officers from the prosecutors' office start recording the death certificate, noting the time and the names of the presiding officers. IT is usually all over within 15 minutes. If an organ transplant is taking place, the body is sometimes carried into a waiting ambulance. If the corneas are to be harvested, the prisoner may be shot through the heart. The corpses are then brought swiftly in ambulances to a crematorium; the ashes are later handed back to the family. The photographs of the executed men are posted on a notice board outside the prosecutors' offices with a large red tick and a brief description of their crimes. According to Asia Watch, if the family requests the return of the intact corpse, it is usually met with a bill for the expenses of the prisoner's upkeep during detention which is often too large for the family to pay. Even when the ashes are returned the family is always forced to pay for the cost of the bullet. In the late 1980s, China signed the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and issued new regulations banning the execution rallies but they have continued, apart from in Beijing and Shanghai. However, a year ago, China began to switch to lethal injections when four drug dealers were executed in Kunming. Eventually, the executions in Kunming and other cities may take place in a building constructed close to the municipal crematorium. Chinese officials say this will make the executions more humane but the move also signals Beijing's intention to retain capital punishment despite international pressure and its obligation to comply with the spirit of UN covenants designed to ban the practice. It is a state secret how many criminals are executed in China and whether there has been a decline or increase since 1979. Amnesty International first began monitoring executions in 1983 when Deng Xiaoping ordered a huge crackdown in which perhaps 10,000 died. Since then the number of capital offences on the statute books is believed to have doubled, from 32 in 1980 to 65 in 1989. The offences keep growing and there may now be as many as 90 because of the addition of non-violent and economic crimes such as 'speculation', 'bribery', forgery of value-added tax receipts and infringement of trademark rights. By comparison, the Tang Dynasty legal code had 233 capital crimes, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty listed 135, and the last dynasty, the Qing, had 813. Monitoring by Amnesty International suggests a rise in the number of publicised executions outside major campaigns although many executions are recorded by the Chinese press. In 1996, the human rights group recorded 4,367 executions and 6,100 sentences during an exceptional year which marked the start of the Strike Hard campaign.