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Chinese Citizens Share Outrage Online After Government Executes Food Vendor

September 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In China, an unlicensed food vendor was executed by the Chinese government. His crime was killing two policemen after being beaten in custody. In the last 24 hours, his name became one of the most searched-for terms in Chinese social media. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the shockwaves caused by this case.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: a story of two murders, a conviction, an execution, and then an outpouring of sympathy and calls for social justice across social media in China.

Hari Sreenivasan tells the tale.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Xia Junfeng was an unknown and unlicensed food vendor in northeastern China in 2009. But following his execution yesterday by the Chinese government, in the last 24 hours, his name became one of the most searched-for terms across Chinese social media.

That’s because, on her micro-blogging Weibo account, his wife, Zhang Jing, chronicled her emotions at seeing her husband just before he died.

“I’m going to see Xia Junfeng for the last time. I’m going crazy.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Xia met his wife and mother for a half-hour through a chain-link fence before his execution. When he begged his jailers if he could take a family photo to leave behind as a memory for his son, his request was denied.

A photo posted by his wife’s family showed a distraught mother. His wife typed: “My mother-in-law is heartbroken. She’s hysterical. What do I do?”

This message was shared tens of thousands of times.

The troubles began in 2009, when Xia and his wife were selling kebabs on the street. They say a gang of chengguan, government-sanctioned urban enforcers, began beating Xia for not having a license. Witnesses say the chengguan took Xia back to their offices, where they continued beating him. That’s where Xia took out his sausage knife and stabbed three men. Two of them died.

Xia was convicted of murder, and his appeals were denied. Witnesses were ready to testify that these murders were an act of self-defense, but were not allowed to take the stand. There have been numerous documented cases of excessive violence and death at the hands of the chengguan.

The Supreme Court in China, which must approve death sentences, stood by the ruling yesterday. More than two dozen human rights lawyers issued a joint statement objecting to the court handing out the most severe punishment, in a case, they say, left much to doubt.

KEN LIEBERTHAL, Brookings Institution: This is not popular sentiment on behalf of a pop idol or a well-known businessperson who is the symbol of the new China or something like that. It’s on behalf of a street vendor, not someone who garners a lot of respect in general in Chinese society.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ken Lieberthal is a China watcher at the Brookings Institution.

KEN LIEBERTHAL: There is an increasing demand from below for a more accountable and a more fair political system.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last year, Gu Kailai, the wife of a once-powerful Chinese politician, confessed to the premeditated murder of a British businessman, yet she will only serve life in prison. That case is being compared to Xia’s as an example of unequal treatment before the law for the wealthy and well-connected.

KEN LIEBERTHAL: This has become so big in part because it fits so perfectly into a larger narrative. The larger narrative is people increasingly becoming very, very unhappy with the way the system is functioning, feeling it is grossly unfair, and feeling that they deserve better.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On social media, Chinese citizens have felt emboldened to criticize what they see as a double standard for the underclass.

Also popular across the Chinese Internet were images of paintings said to be created by Xia Junfeng’s 13-year-old son, this one of the boy climbing on his father’s back. A compilation of these paintings made into a book to help raise funds for the family sold out its 5,000 copies.

Today, Xia Junfeng’s widow, Zhang Jing, collected his ashes and prepared for a family farewell.