The nationally televised broadcast of an execution forces China to confront whether it is ready to implement the rule of law.
Since China began its rapid economic ascent three decades ago, it has made a point of unveiling landmark achievements with great media pomp. Most recently, the world watched breathless announcers from China Central Television (CCTV), China's main national broadcaster, laud the country's first aircraft carrier and space docking. In the same spirit, though with more somber tones, CCTV aired a live two-hour special last Friday featuring the final moments of four drug traffickers facing execution for murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in October 2011.
Led by Burmese gang leader Naw Kham, the four men, along with two accomplices given long prison sentences, were apprehended last April in Laos after an extensive manhunt that included law enforcement teams from multiple countries. According to a senior public security official who spoke to the Global Times in February, China had at one point considered killing Naw Kham through a drone strike in response to mounting public outrage
Without a doubt, the case touched upon painful wounds from historical and current mistreatment of Chinese nationals working overseas. As more and more seek opportunities outside the country, the potential dangers they face from hostile foreign hosts have only heightened concerns. It was of little surprise, then, that CCTV emphasized during the broadcast that in bringing Naw Kham and his men to justice, China was displaying the "confidence and determination to safeguard national judicial sovereignty and national interests".
Still, any symbolic assurances of safety were not enough to mitigate the horror many expressed at the state's display of power over life and encouragement of blood lust. During and after the broadcast, a fierce debate raged on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, over whether a public airing of an execution was at all appropriate.
A significant chorus of objections to the public execution claimed that it violated the rule of law. In China, where both Xi Jinping, China's incoming president, and Li Keqiang, its next premier, have designated implementation of the rule of law as the linchpin of the country's crucial political reform efforts, such claims should give pause.
Based on the army of legal pundits CCTV had on hand during the broadcast, it would seem the government had anticipated these arguments and sought to preempt them. Indeed, since the four men were sentenced in November, coverage of the execution in state media has boasted of China's meticulousness in following the judicial process during the case. On Friday, legal experts ticked through each of the procedural safeguards to demonstrate that the criminals have been dealt with fairly, from appealing the sentence to considering mitigating circumstances that were found ultimately to not apply.
What CCTV did not realize, however, was that the proceedings of the case did not have to be defended. They are as uncontroversial as the government's desire to protect its citizens from crimes on foreign soil. Rather, those who cried "rule of law" would be aiming their displeasure at CCTV's decision to broadcast the executions.