CCTV Pre-Execution Spectacle Polarizes Viewers

Drug lord Naw Kham and three other foreigners were executed in Kunming on Friday for the 2011 killings of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River. State broadcaster CCTV aired the prisoners’ final hours, together with segments on their crimes and the ensuing manhunt, as a showcase of tough justice, but some saw instead a sinister and possibly illegal echo of the Mao era. From Jonathan Kaiman at The Guardian:

Naw Kham’s wry smile belied his macabre circumstances. “I haven’t been able to sleep for two days. I have been thinking too much. I miss my mum. I don’t want my children to be like me,” the 44-year-old Burmese druglord, chained to a chair, told a Chinese TV interviewer.

On Friday – two days after the interview – the Burmese freshwater pirate was executed for allegedly murdering a crew of Chinese sailors on the Mekong river in October, 2011. His last moments were aired on state television.

In the two-hour live broadcast, black-clad police officers hauled Naw Kham from a detention centre in southern China, bound him with ropes and chains, and bundled him on to a bus bound for the execution site. Three of his alleged henchmen followed in similar fashion. They were each killed – off camera – by lethal injection.

Though a rumored live broadcast of the actual executions failed to materialize, the TV coverage attracted heavy criticism. “It’s hard to see how that spectacle doesn’t violate [the] prohibition on parading condemned in the streets,” tweeted human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig, referring to a 1984 ban introduced to avoid unfavorable foreign media coverage. Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin commented that China had “just wiped away any perception that it was making progress on the death penalty issue.” Within China, reactions to the broadcast were deeply polarized. From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

“Rather than showcasing rule of law, the program displayed state control over human life in a manner designed to attract gawkers,” Han Youyi, a criminal law professor, wrote via microblog. “State-administered violence is no loftier than criminal violence.”

[…] In one segment, Liu Yuejin, director general of the central government’s Narcotics Control Bureau, cast the executions as a pivotal moment for a newly confident China and for ethnic Chinese across the globe. “In the past, overseas Chinese dared not say they were of Chinese origin,” said Mr. Liu, who led the task force that spent six months hunting the culprits. “Now they can hold their heads high and be themselves.”

Supporters of the program were many, and enthusiastic. One blogger suggested that death by lethal injection was too lenient, adding “These beasts should be pulled apart by vehicles.”

Some critics said the broadcast, and the subsequent public gloating, displayed an ugly side of China and would hurt its image abroad. To Murong Xuecun, a well-known Chinese author, the program revealed a national psyche, fed by decades of Communist Party propaganda, that craves vengeance for the years of humiliation by foreigners. “It proves that hatred-education still has a market in China,” he said in an interview.

At Bloomberg World View, Adam Minter described the spectacle as a “graphic extension” of a broader political strategy:

[…] Over the last two years the Chinese government has found itself embroiled in increasingly dangerous sovereignty disputes with its Southeast Asian and Japanese neighbors. So far, diplomacy has been the preferred course of action. Yet on China’s decidedly nationalistic and highly influential microblogging platforms, diplomacy — especially on sovereignty issues — is unpopular and viewed as a sign of weakness.

In response, the Chinese government and its official media tribunals have carefully ratcheted up the aggressive rhetoric, especially toward Japan, since the fall of 2012, reminding Chinese that they will not be bullied by outside forces. Rather, if there will be any bullying, China will be doing it.

A 2012 Reuters investigation into the Mekong murders described the web of trafficking in drugs, humans and endangered animals in Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle”, and Naw Kham’s legendary or perhaps mythical place in it. The report also highlighted the possible involvement of an elite Thai anti-drugs unit in the killings.

China’s Global Times recently revealed that authorities had considered killing Naw Kham with a drone strike instead of capturing him. See more on China’s drone programs, and more on the death penalty in China, via CDT.