Chinese Rethink Capital Punishment After Execution Of Street Vendor Xia Junfeng

Street vendor Xia Junfeng, as depicted on the Internet

Published in collaboration with Offbeat China.

“I won’t comply!”

Those were reportedly the last words of Xia Junfeng, a street vendor who ran a kebab stall in Shenyang, Liaoning province, just before his excution on Wednesday. Four years ago, in what he insisted was an act of self-defense, Xia stabbed to death two urban city management enforcement officers — chengguan — and wounded another. Most Chinese, including many law professionals, believed Xia should have been charged with “excessive defense,” but after four years of appeals, the Supreme Court finally approved his death sentence.

In a country where the use of capital punishment is widely supported, Xia’s case has revived a heated public discussion of whether it’s time for China to abolish capital punishment. Many pointed out that capital punishment has become China’s new class divide – the death penalty is a “privilege” reserved for the powerless.

Much of the outcry can be attributed to the fact that Xia was a street vendor, and the two men he killed were chengguan, a much hated group known for abusive tactics. It’s not uncommon to hear about street vendors who have been beaten to death by chengguan officers. But when street vendors are the victims, the death sentence is seldom, if at all, applied. For example, two years ago, also in Liaoning province, three chengguan officers who beat an elderly man to death were sentenced to 11 years and 3 years in prison, respectively.

Another reason for the public’s anger is a strong sense of judicial inequality. Many compared Xia with Gu Kailai, wife of politician Bo Xilai, who murdered a British businessman. Her death sentence was “suspended,” which more likely than not means she’ll get out on medical parole sooner than later.

“If capital punishment punishes only the people, then it’s better to be abolished,” commented netizen丁来峰. “I suggest China abolish capital punishment. If you are an official, you will be sentenced to suspended life at most, even after you take hundreds of millions in bribes. If you are an official, you will be sentenced to suspended death even after you’ve murdered a foreigner. If you are an official, even a lowest ranking one, you will be okay after beating someone to death because your boss will use taxpayers’ money to pay the victim’s family off. But if you are just an ordinary citizen and you kill out of self-defense, then you will be executed.”

Many of China’s supporters of capital punishment still believe that the death penalty is necessary and point to its use in punishing corrupt officials. But Xia’s case has prompted even staunch capital punishment advocates to rethink their reasoning.

“I used to support limiting capital punishment — not full revoking of it — because I hoped that the use of capital punishment culd curb corruption,” explained 何兵, associate dean of the law school at China University of Political Science and Law. “But Liu Zhijun [former head of China Rail, charged with corruption] was exempt from death; Gu Kailai was exempt from death; while Zeng Chengjie [developer charged with a pony scheme] was executed; Xia Junfeng was executed… if the death penalty doesn’t apply to officials, it shouldn’t apply to the people, either. Call for a complete dismantling of capital punishment.”

Netizen 桃谷散人 held the same view: “I once opposed abolishing capital punishment in China, naively believing that the government would use the death penalty to punish the corrupt and save the people. But the reality is that none of the corrupt is executed, only ordinary people.” Another netizen, 谭_zoe崽崽, added, “Now I realize that in an unfair judicial system that rules by the wills of officials, capital punishment must be dismantled!”

Alia is the founder of Offbeat China, where this post also appears.

    6 Responses to “Chinese Rethink Capital Punishment After Execution Of Street Vendor Xia Junfeng”

    1. terroir

      Good on you for having an opinion, Alia. Your writing is so much better when it is focused and direct. Keep it up.

      To add, the idea of a convicted prisoner pleading innocence is is so far-fetched in China that it will actually be used as evidence to their innocence.

      As much as I hope that citizen outcry will reform the courts and law in China, I hope they stop changing the decisions of courts. Here’s hoping for real reform.

    2. Gargh

      Fascinating that the capital punishment debate in China should apparently focus not on the morality of killing or the question of proof, but on the equality of application. Would be fascinating to see more detailed study of this.

      Actually, it just struck me as bizarre that capital punishment has such a high level of support in China. On the internet and in real life I think most evidence suggests that people are highly sceptical about their local power-holders, assuming they’re corrupt and unjust (the central government seems to largely avoid such suspicions). You’d think that purely on that basis people would reject capital punishment, because it gives their corrupt local leaders life-and-death power.

      Or do people have a high level of confidence in the courts? It seems like any confidence would be hard to justify…

      • SeaHorse

        Think cultural and religious reasons mostly. In the west where Christianity pretty much dominated culture for at least 1000 years taking a person’s life is a way of ‘playing God.’ So it can argued that executions are sacrilegious. It also denies a person the chance of accepting Christ later on in life, which is why you are entitled to have a priest go up with you when you die so you can confess your sins and convert. Like killing a criminal without a priest present is the worst thing you can do as a human being to another soul because you’re sending them straight to hell from a Christian perspective. Not saying people think this all the time here in the west, but it’s engrained in our culture to give people second chances.

        In traditional Chinese culture there isn’t that much of an emphasis on atonement, and more on learning and teaching people to do the right thing. Unless you’re Buddhist, then you come back around as a crappier animal. Also many Chinese find it more excusable to excuse people when they are poor and uneducated, but if a cultured or educated person commits a crime it’s not like they were desperate or ignorant. One seems misguided, the other malicious.

        • jixiang

          Then why is it that in most Western Countries until a century or two ago the death penalty was applied as liberally as it is in China nowadays?

          Perhaps it isn’t to do with Christianity.

    3. 不家

      The symbol of justice in the west is a blindfolded lady holding a balanced scale – signifying equality for all. In China, it should be a bosomed karaoke girl, scantily clad, winking, and holding wads of cash in one hand (from the privileged), and an AK in the other hand (for peasants & the public).
      Death penalty, to be continued, should be meted out to the party officials who steals billions,who in their corrupt acts, essentially “killed” thousands of people, as those purloined monies could have built hospitals and other infrastructure that would have enhanced the lives of so many.
      Dont hold your breath waiting for that glorious day.


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