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China’s televised death march of foreign killers sparks debate

The Washington Post/Bloomberg

In an unusual action that quickly sparked debate online, Chinese authorities showed a live broadcast Friday of four foreign drug smugglers in their last hours before execution for killing 13 fishermen.

A shocking and apparently unprecedented form of reality TV for China, the program on state-run television featured all the staples of modern current events coverage — experts, pundits, instant analysis.

It cut away as the convicted men were being led from their prison cells, hands tied up with rope, toward their lethal injections.

The program was simulcast on CCTV-9, the state-run network’s English-language channel carried both in China and on cable systems around the world, with English-language commentary over the Chinese.The reaction was immediate and polarized, with many online questioning the ethics of the broadcast, as well as China’s use of the death penalty. The exact number of annual executions in China is considered a state secret, but Amnesty International estimates that it could be thousands, which would be more than the rest of the world combined.

Some legal experts questioned whether the broadcast violated rules against parading prisoners before their executions. Others simply said it was inhumane.

One magazine columnist named Lian Peng criticized the program as ghoulish propaganda, saying on China’s Twitter-like microblogs, “Even if it’s just the preparation before execution, the exclusive interviews before dying, the interpretation of experts and making the public watch, all of it humiliated people’s dignity without a doubt.”

The four executed were convicted of killing 13 Chinese fishermen on the Mekong River in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Analysts said Friday’s spectacle, focused on the execution of foreigners, was designed to reassure a restive Chinese public that its leaders are not soft.

It’s a critical message. 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.

Many Chinese comments online heaped scorn on the four men for the killings.

One blogger with the handle “A Good Citizen of Big Country” argued such executions don’t happen enough: “Many so-called elites call for abolishing the death penalty, saying it’s against human rights. Human rights should be the right to survive first of all. Canceling the death penalty will cause people to hurt others more fearlessly.”