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.