02 March 2013

Post-Spectacle Commentary: "Be a Healthy Person"

Yesterday afternoon, "Mekong pirate leader" Naw Kham and three other foreign nationals were executed by lethal injection in Kunming. In unprecedented fashion, China's state television broadcaster carried special two-hour live reports in Chinese and English, including scenes of the condemned being transferred from detention and delivered to mobile execution facilities. (See the New York Times report; for excellent background on the case, see this Reuters report.)

I had the Chinese broadcast on in the other room, but I missed most of the relevant scenes. But between watching on TV and reading others' descriptions of what was being broadcast, I couldn't help wonder why such a broadcast was authorized in the first place.

Public executions and the parading of prisoners in the streets has a long tradition in China, as it did in many other countries. In the 1980s, China found itself torn between two conflicting interests: displacing mass politics and class struggle with rule-based norms and legality on the one hand and, on the other, imposing social order through a bloody, nationwide "Strike Hard" campaign.

It was during this period, in 1984, that Chinese authorities issued a directive prohibiting the filming of execution grounds and the parading or public display of the condemned. That directive, which was issued by the CCP Propaganda Department together with China's main judicial and law-enforcement bodies, cited a recent Newsweek article, which included photos of an execution in Guangxi together with a report from Amnesty International criticizing China's campaign against political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Preventing hostile overseas media from using execution images to "spread rumors" and "slander" China was the primary motivation for curbing the practice of parading the condemned and holding public executions.

This prohibition was subsequently written into China's Criminal Procedure Law, and the relevant Supreme People's Court interpretation on implementation of the death penalty also prohibits "other acts that degrade the personality of criminals" (其他有辱罪犯人格的行为).

It's hard to see how China's live broadcast leading up to the executions doesn't violate the spirit, if not the letter, of those prohibitions. I saw many Chinese people making the same observations yesterday and wondered whether any of those voices would make it into print.

I found one in this morning's Changjiang Daily, the official "organ" of the party in Wuhan (which, incidently, held its own executions yesterday). In it, commentator Liu Min reminds us that by degrading the dignity of other human beings, we degrade ourselves as well.

Be a Healthy Person
Liu Min
Changjiang Daily, 2 March 2013

A Chinese court decided on the death penalty for Naw Kham and the others. Yesterday, CCTV broadcast live Naw Kham being transported to the execution ground. This initiated a great debate online.

Initially, many netizens believed that CCTV would broadcast live from the scene as Naw Kham was being executed. Later, CCTV commentator Yang Yu posted to Weibo, clarifying: “CCTV reported on some of the procedures as Naw Kham and the others were taken out of the detention center but never broadcast live the execution process.” Chinese laws state that executions should not be public.

I watched the video, and indeed that was the case. However, I found watching the more than four minutes as they were being transferred [from the detention center] very uncomfortable and hard to bear. CCTV’s live broadcast showed in full detail how the special police tied up Naw Kham with thick rope. Naw Kham’s grimacing, pained expression as he was tied up and led out was also perfectly clear on the screen.

I know, of course, about the violence committed by Naw Kham and the others that resulted in 13 Chinese crewmen losing their lives. No amount of condemnation for this violence would be too great. I also know that those who commit violence must be punished by the law in order to restore justice, bring comfort to the living, and allow the dead to rest in peace.

I think, however, that any person with normal feelings would find it hard to bear and feel uncomfortable watching another person suffer, no matter whether that other person is good or bad. That is why, in many American dramas, when those, including the victim’s family members, gather in that small room to watch as the criminal is given lethal injection they often turn their heads or lower their eyes. That is because this is the normal psychological and physical reaction of a normal person, one that proves that we are humans, rather than animals.

Perhaps it is not illegal in China to broadcast live as the condemned are transferred to the execution ground, but I still oppose broadcasting live. Before, China used to have so-called public sentencing rallies and parade bound criminals in the streets for public viewing. Now, live broadcast of the transfer is no different in any real sense and is even more repulsive. Why?

It is because the live broadcast voluntarily and consciously revived these kinds of backward, barbaric scenes lacking in any modern notion of rights or rule of law. The live broadcast even delivered these scenes right in front of your eyes, so that you didn’t even need to go out of doors or be in the streets: you could see the barbarity and backwardness from your own home. You could say, in other words, that this live broadcast was itself barbaric and backwards, displaying no progress at all.

I saw many people online who praised the live broadcast and even some who “criticized” CCTV for not airing scenes of the executions. Not only that, but whenever anyone expressed opposition or doubt about the live broadcast, they were immediately attacked by those in favor, who asked: “Why don’t you think about the 13 dead Chinese crewmen?”

Yes, I also heard a CCTV commentator utter the word “retribution.” I don’t understand the relationship between legal sanctions and retribution—they seem worlds apart to me, two completely different concepts. Legal sanctions are an expression of the spirit of rule of law; they have nothing to do with retribution and do not demand that criminals suffer retribution. Retribution—lightning strikes from heaven or a blade delivered to avenge the enemy—is not the sanction of law, but rather mass revenge or a mental curse. When this kind of language appeared on the state television of a nation that continually proclaims the modern spirit of rule or law, it is more than just disappointing.

The live broadcast and the debate it inspired allow us to see the state of modern values in China. Actually, it’s unnecessary to repeat the words “rule of law” and “human rights” over and over in talking about this matter. One only needs to start from a direct standpoint, one unmediated by any jargon, and think about how to be a healthy person, one with basic rationality and normal feelings.

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