BEIJING -- The sign outside reads: Beijing Supreme People's Court Project 86. But the innocuous name masks its real purpose. Behind the brick-and-barbed-wire walls lies the execution ground for those condemned to die in Beijing.

The prisoners are driven up the sandy path to this isolated compound on a thorn-covered hill overlooking the capital. Under the open sky, the prisoners, arms tied behind their backs, their legs in shackles, kneel on the black earth. At the signal, a paramilitary soldier fires a single rifle shot. It is usually to the back of the head. The prisoner topples into the dirt. Death is almost always immediate.

Sometimes, the corpses are immediately put into a waiting ambulance to be whisked to a hospital where vital organs are removed for transplant. Often, the organs are removed without the prior consent of the prisoner, according to former prisoners, witnesses and human rights groups.

In some cases, the prisoner's family is even billed for the bullet -- the equivalent of about 6 cents. "If you don't pay, they won't give you the ashes," explained one former detainee.

The world's most populous country also has the largest death row population. In 1992, China, which accounts for 22 percent of humanity, executed at least 1,079 prisoners, representing 63 percent of the world's executions, according to Amnesty International.

Last year, the number of executions rose to 1,411, according to Amnesty International -- an average of nearly four executions a day. Because China keeps the total number of executions secret, human rights groups estimate that the true figure is much higher. By comparison, the United States had about 2,800 people on death row last year and carried out 38 executions, the highest in 30 years.

China's increasing reliance on the death penalty reflects the turmoil in society today. Amid China's economic success, corruption is at an all-time high. Even though the crime rate is far below that of the United States, it has been growing with alarming speed. Police foot patrols are in place in major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, for the first time in years. Violent crime was up 17.5 percent in the first 10 months of last year.

While the spotlight on China's human rights practices is intensifying in the current debate linking human rights improvements to Washington's granting of low-tariff trade status to Beijing, pressure by international human rights groups to limit China's use of capital punishment is not likely to change things.

Chinese authorities have turned to capital punishment especially for economic crimes that do not involve violence, according to human rights groups. The same crimes would be punished in other countries with fines or imprisonment, according to Amnesty.

In November 1992, a merchant was executed for making and selling such ordinary spirits as Maotai, the Chinese liquor famous for its potency. It was the first time the death penalty had been applied to a person accused of infringing trademark rights.

About 65 crimes, or one-third of all criminal offenses in China, are now punishable by death. In addition to murder and armed robbery, the death penalty may be meted out for serious cases of prostitution, trade in cultural relics, sabotage of dikes and organizing secret religious societies. A wide variety of "counterrevolutionary" crimes also carry capital punishment. But most political prisoners fall into categories of "counterrevolutionary" crimes that are not subject to the death penalty.

Moreover, the Chinese judicial system does not include the concept of presumption of innocence; once charged, a person almost always is convicted and sentences are hardly ever overturned.

In China, execution is a raw process, with little attention paid to dignity. Chinese officials often point out that prisoners' feelings cannot be taken into consideration since they have been deprived of political rights "for life."

Unlike the trend in Western countries, no attempt is made to minimize contact between executioner and prisoner here.

Sometimes, prisoners eat a breakfast of wotou, or steamed cornbread, with the same soldiers who will shoot them an hour or two later, according to a former judicial employee who has witnessed about 100 executions.

A soldier of the paramilitary force known as the People's Armed Police pulls the trigger. He does not wear a mask or hood. The prisoner does not wear a blindfold.

The United States and other Western countries now take elaborate measures to make executions as impersonal and bloodless as possible. The most common forms of capital punishment are by lethal injection and the electric chair. Only Utah still has executions by firing squad. Even then, the gunmen stand behind a black curtain. The condemned wears a blindfold. One of the guns has a blank, but no one knows which one.

The Chinese Communists have always used executions as a propaganda tool. During the Maoist era, executions were performed in public. Chinese were pressured to watch. Attendance proved one's solidarity with the people and against the people's enemies. Even today, there are reports of mass sentencing rallies and even public executions in remote provinces.

In the 1970s, some executions were broadcast on prime-time television. But in the past decade, as China has opened to the West and become sensitive about its international image, it has moved executions behind closed doors. Except for official media reports on death sentences handed down, and the blood-red check marks on posted court notices signifying completion of the sentence, all other information is secret.

One reason executions were moved out of the public domain was that too many prisoners were yelling anti-government slogans before death, according to Wei Jingsheng, China's foremost political dissident. Wei was on death row for eight months of his nearly 15 years in prison. He was released last September.

In 1986, authorities issued new regulations to ensure secrecy. "Execution grounds are not allowed to be set up near busy sections of town, near key roads or near tourist sites," according to the internal directive issued jointly by police and judicial authorities. "Strictly control access to the execution ground," it says.

While some executions take place immediately after sentencing, many are carried out before major holidays. But unlike in the United States, where the vast majority of death penalty sentences are not carried out, there is little hope of a last-minute reprieve here. Prisoners are only allowed one appeal to a higher court. Of the 2,176 death sentences imposed last year, nearly 65 percent were carried out, according to Amnesty.

Final preparations for executions begin the night before. The prisoners are photographed; special notice is taken of identifying birthmarks; judicial officials test the keys to any handcuffs and leg shackles to make sure they can be easily removed after death. Then prisoners are moved to a special detention center, where they are held in individual cells.

"They ate their last meal, of one large mantou {steamed bread} and five {hard-boiled} eggs," recalled one Chinese official, referring to the execution of 29 convicts in July 1983. "Their legs were in heavy irons. They were chained to a post on the ground."

Before dawn, officials tie the prisoners' arms behind their backs with heavy cord. Sometimes the cord is also wrapped tightly around the neck to prevent them from shouting anti-government slogans, the official said.

"They're trussed up just like pigs before slaughter," he said.

Some final requests are permitted. Some ask to wash their faces. Others ask to pray. A 19-year-old soldier who was executed in 1985 was allowed to eat "a large bowl of meat dumplings prepared by the company's canteen," the official said.

But unlike in the United States, prisoners are not allowed a final statement to air grievances, nor can letters claiming innocence be turned over to relatives. One prisoner who sang a defiant song was severely beaten by soldiers before he was shot, according to one witness.

At the execution site, two soldiers of the People's Armed Police escort each bound prisoner to a pre-selected spot. The prisoners are forced to their knees, their heads pushed down. Often, their pants are tied at the ankles to prevent the cloth from getting caught in the shackles and in the event the prisoners lose control of their bodily functions.

The order is given to prepare. When the whistle is blown, a third soldier fires a bullet from a carbine rifle -- chosen for its large bullets -- into the back of the skull. Although the gun is only inches from the head, nervous soldiers sometimes miss, according to a former staff member of the Beijing Supreme People's Court, and another shot is fired.

An official photograph is taken of the body. The names of the executioner and supervising official are entered into a secret record. A judicial official, wearing gloves, removes any bloody handcuffs and shackles. If no organs are to be removed, crematorium personnel wrap up the body and take it away.

The family is not allowed to see the corpse. Except for members of minorities for whom burial is the tradition, the family is only entitled to the ashes. But the family must pay the costs of cremation and transport to the crematorium.

"If the family doesn't claim the ashes, they're used as fertilizer," said the Chinese official.

Until 1986, when the Beijing Supreme People's Court Project 86 was built, the capital had several execution grounds. The new site, where 30 prisoners can be executed at one time, according to the Chinese official, is only a few minutes' drive from the court complex and the crematorium.

Executions usually take place at 10 a.m., according to local residents. A curfew always precedes the arrival of the paramilitary police, judicial staff and medical personnel. Sometimes as many as 20 vehicles swarm down the road, workers said.

"They never let anyone watch," said one temporary laborer. "They station soldiers with rifles to stand guard."

On a recent visit, the complex appeared deserted. But when a reporter walked near the black steel front gate, dogs could be heard barking inside.

Fan Shumin, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Supreme People's Court and Beijing Intermediate People's Court, declined to answer any questions about Project 86, or executions in general.

There is no public debate about the death penalty, and Chinese authorities often point to strong public sentiment as a major reason for keeping the death penalty. "At this stage in our development, we cannot do away with the death penalty," said Xiao Yang, governor of China's most populous region, Sichuan province.