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.
Then again, despite a technical point from prominent human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan that China's Criminal Procedure Law prohibits public executions, the broadcast was perfectly legal. No execution was ever shown. What coverage of the trips to the execution site does reveal, however, is that China still lacks a culture that the rule of law requires. This sort of culture acknowledges the more visceral forms of justice but also prizes a rational approach to dealing with crime and punishment. The focus of the criminal justice system should be on deterrence, punishing only insofar as society may benefit and recognizing the humanity of defendants regardless of the alleged crimes. Vengeance and assertions of might are unwelcome in this context.
To be fair, even in societies that pride themselves on their mature legal systems the question of live executions has hardly been settled. Timothy McVeigh's execution, the last high-profile one of its kind in the United States, was broadcast on closed-circuit television in 2001 with journalists only able to bring in pen and paper. But every major broadcaster showed footage of the crowds outside, some supporting McVeigh, others counting down the seconds until his death with relish. Many felt that the execution should have been public to force the American people to confront the gruesomeness of the death penalty.
And yet neither executions nor final journeys are public in these countries (or, for that matter, in China in most cases). Indeed, Chinese authorities ended the television program Interviews Before Execution, which aired in Henan Province, last year in embarrassment after it became the subject of a BBC documentary. For all of China's awareness of the imperfections of legal justice, largely responsible for previous resistance to the rule of law, footage of dead men walking was a reminder that it needed something extra to legitimize official judgments of right and wrong.
China may have special reason to showcase its justice system, but all societies that still have capital punishment necessarily view its carriage as an achievement. To rigorously vet the road to an execution is to bless an outcome that would otherwise be unacceptable. What China learned on Friday is how quickly all this work is undone after the law reaches a point at which it can only hope to guide and not force.
Ironically, China's leaders probably thought they had a relatively straight-forward path to implementing the rule of law. That would only be true, however, if statute books and a healthy respect for order were all that the endeavor entailed. The comprehensive nature of a truly robust rule of law demands more. As the National People's Congress gets under way to pass a slew of new laws and officially hand over the reins of leadership, China has shown just how far away it is from understanding its chosen vehicle for future reform.