Today around noon I saw Twitter light up over a report that CCTV would live broadcast the execution of a Burmese drug smuggler and three members of his gang convicted of killing 13 Chinese on the Mekong River.
At first glance I assumed the uproar was because CCTV would devote so much attention to the execution of foreign criminals; attention like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy received when crowds gathered outside their prisons and cameras were rolling to capture the signal that they were dead.
That angle made sense. China devoted no such attention to the executions of its own serial killers like Yang Xinhai and Zhang Yongmin. It seemed to be yet another Opium War allusion to give the impression: “Vigilant CCP shows no mercy to foreign aggressors who attack China’s sovereignty and humiliate its people (especially through the drug trade).”
I soon realized though that that wasn’t what the uproar was about. People thought that “live broadcasting the execution” meant CCTV would literally bring cameras into the chamber and air the lethal injections.
For those familiar with the version of China gossiped about by grannies in Florida getting their hair done, that might seem conceivable. But for those familiar with the actual China, that proposition should sound completely absurd.
Contrary to popular belief, The People’s Republic of China has rarely put their executions out on display (vigilante Cultural Revolution killings aside). Sure, it frequently paraded condemned criminals around town and had execution rallies in stadiums right up through the 1990s. There was even a TV show until last year that interviewed death row inmates, sometimes just minutes before execution. But when it’s time to do the deed itself, criminals have almost always been taken to a secluded location away from public eyes.
In 2004, Boxun did a report on the death penalty in China featuring interviews with law enforcement who’d been involved with executions (Boxun is by no means reliable, but in this case there were very gruesome photos that seem to back up the interviews).
One man who’d been involved in “half a dozen” executions up until 1995 using the traditional bullet to the head method said, “There are no spectators at the scene of the execution. We maintain three rings of security. Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds. On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.”
As satisfying as it may be for some to see a foreign aggressor get what’s coming to him, why would authorities regress below something considered too socially risky even by 1995 standards? Chinese censors routinely cut fictional violence from movies and TV – even to the point of disallowing the use of a knife to threaten someone – lest any fragile minds be influenced and disrupt social harmony. So why on Earth would the most viewed channel on the most viewed medium in China show a real person being killed live for millions of children to see?
It wouldn’t. Period.
All this uproar began with a piece in South China Morning Post titled “CCTV ‘to broadcast live execution of Mekong River massacre drug smugglers.’” John Kennedy, who wrote the piece, later said on Twitter: “CCTV said, unambiguously and in plain Chinese, it’s going to live broadcast the execution. I’m not going to put words in its mouth. If it turns out CCTV is deliberately misleading the public to boost viewership (and in a way or two I hope it is), that’s a story in itself.”
In the end, just about everything leading up to the executions was shown – from prepping the prisoners to transporting them – but cameras stopped short of entering the chamber. Doing so would have been socially risky, and therefore impossible; not to mention gratuitously vile on a level that even the Ministry of Public Security wouldn’t stoop to.
Were the bits that were shown morbid, exploitative and inhumane? Sure. Was it all shamelessly done as a political statement with unsettling xenophobic undertones? Absolutely. Was it warranted in order to deter such brutal criminal acts in the future? I’m sure a lot of people will make that argument. And I’m sure you’ll be reading elsewhere about all these things in the coming days, but all I can say is nobody took the enormous leap of showing the execution – something a lot of people who should have known better seemed to think was a real possibility.
[Correction: This previously referred to the Boxun report as being from 1994. It was actually from 2004.]