The Absurdity of a Live Broadcast Execution

Posted: March 1, 2013 in media
Tags: , , , ,

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.]

  1. C. Custer says:

    I’m not sure how doing a two-hour execution-stravaganza that includes showing the subjects being restrained and led off to their deaths is really all that much better for society or for the “millions of children” than actually showing the injection itself.

    As for those who “should have known better,” perhaps. But as a dissident friend of mine once told me, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the Communist Party.” The fact that doing something would be inconceivably stupid and self-damaging has not, historically speaking, been a great indicator of whether or not they would actually do it. Moreover, I’m not sure the PSB is always as careful about keeping the public away from executions as you suggest. For example, here’s a video of a bunch of villagers watching an execution happening; I’m not sure exactly when this is from but it looks pretty recent. Obviously, this isn’t the same as broadcasting one live on CCTV, but in the smartphone age, it isn’t all that different, either. The police surely must know that if you let 50 people watch an execution unmolested, someone’s going to take a video and put it online to share with China’s 500 million+ net users (including plenty of kids).

    I agree CCTV live-broadcasting an actual execution is pretty unlikely, but I don’t think it’s quite as inconceivable as you’re suggesting here.

    • sinostand says:

      I think there’s a pretty big difference between yanking the prisoners around on camera and actually killing them as far as warping people. Even if it’s a relatively calm execution through lethal injection, that’s a pretty damn big leap.

      I agree wholeheartedly that it’s never wise to underestimate the stupidity of the CCP, and when I said there was no way an on camera execution would happen beforehand on twitter, some people were saying stuff like “You never know in China.” 99% of the time I would agree with both those sentiments but I think in that 1% of the time you do know. There was just something that made this feel so needlessly risky – both for domestic and foreign audiences – and so repulsive that it was unthinkable.

      I know public executions do happen by very misguided local officials (and that’s hardly the most misguided thing they’re capable of), but there’s really no precedent for something like a nationwide televised execution – even from the thoroughly sadistic Mao era.

  2. Potomacker says:

    More news from the CCP’s soft power worldwide tour.

  3. Natalie says:

    I think, after the fact, it’s very easy to say, “Well, of course they wouldn’t.” But I don’t think that means there was naivety on the part any of us who thought there was the remote possibility that they might.

    There are a lot of hot button issues at play in this case, including the fact that it’s drug related, it involved Thailand, and it also involved the killing of sailors. While we all hoped that the strong nationalist push of recent wouldn’t mean a live broadcast of an execution, I don’t think any of us was completely sure.

    And while I agree that there are degrees of possible viewer trauma (and obviously the execution itself would have been more traumatic to watch), there is still plenty of trauma in the whole experience of watching heavily guarded men being very roughly handled and bound in rope before disappearing into a windowless van. It’s a sinister message to send.

    • sinostand says:

      This isn’t just after the fact. I was completely sure beforehand, and I said as much on Twitter several times beforehand:

  4. King Tubby says:

    Now, if it was Bo Xilai, but he refuses to learn his script.

  5. Chris H. says:

    Oh and Gu Kailai can wore a smart dress without being fettered in ropes and man-handled through the court because she’s the wife of a high official. Live execution or not is definitely sinister, nationalist and a reminder of the overtly brutal nature of the regime.

  6. USA in Foshan says:

    China has serial killers? For real? Culd you write or do a post about that Mr Fish because people don’t . Asked a couplle of Chinese friends and they said there aren’t any serial killers in China

  7. Chris H. says:

    Yikes! Apologies for the atrocious grammar on the previous reply. I clicked enter before checking it over.

  8. Taylor says:

    Your site is nice, Eric, and I usually enjoy it but other than crowing ‘told you so’ what the fuck is your point? Plenty of people beloved there was something horribly tasteless gonna happen, because the actual source was state media, according to SCMP. The Twitter reaction from the Hands was generally along the lines of ‘whoa’ or maybe ‘for real?’

    Can you perhaps point to some foreign journalism that supports the POV that this article is supposed to be debunking?

    • sinostand says:

      Yeah, I suppose this does come off as a bit of an “I told you so,” though I tried to avoid that in the post itself and only pulled it out when someone said it’s easy to say this “after the fact.” And yes, most of the hands were just saying stuff along the lines of “huh?” not necessarily thinking it could happen (and a few others pretty clearly called bullshit). But there were plenty that seemed to buy it or think it could possibly happen (see the twitter trackbacks to the SCMP piece:

      It’s pretty much a given that something tasteless was going to happen, but I was a bit dumbfounded that people took “live broadcast the execution” so literally. I don’t know how exactly it was worded in Chinese, but even when I read the SCMP report, I just assumed that it meant “live broadcast” in the way a lot of high-profile executions have been covered in the US – as in around the facility.

      So the point is, even if something is reported in the newspaper or by state media itself, for the love of god use some common sense. Even when the CCP (or its lower officials) do incredibly stupid things, you can at least trace some semblance of logic and calculation. Like when they tried to bury the train car after the Wenzhou train crash to “hide evidence,” it was incredibly stupid and self-defeating, but you can at least trace the logic in those people’s minds back to a precedent of knee-jerk cover up. The idea of executing someone on live national TV has no precedent. It would be going against the status quo with no reasonable expectation of positive consequences. So it’s absurd to think any high group of officials would put their necks on the line to be incredibly stupid and self-defeating AGAINST the status quo.

      I think a general belief that the CCP is an unmitigated baby-eating bogeyman made it easier for a lot of people to believe this could happen. So I guess the more general point is that as brutal and stupid as the CCP can be, it’s not THAT brutal and stupid.

  9. King Tubby says:

    Re: the article by Robert Foyle Hunwick.

    “Now China is always playing the victimhood game, must-catch-up- with-the-West card, but when it comes to mass murderers with a truly gruesome bent, this drivel does not apply. It is producing serial killers at an exponential rate, and they are right up there with the competition in terms of ingenuity and strange fixations: necrophiliacs, hammer murderers, vivisectionists, child murderers, devotees of dungeon incarceration, cannibals, etc.

    In brief, we are talking about really sick creatures who prey on the weak and transient: children from dirt poor villages to sex workers and mobile migrant workers.”

    From one of my previous posts. Riders on the Sino Storm

  10. ajax151 says:

    You got quoted by Asia Time’s Peter Lee in his piece “Did China execute the wrong pirate?”

    “Virtually alone on the opposite side of the ledger, Sinostand’s Eric Fish had questioned the “actual execution to be televised” meme before the fact and was excoriated by commenters for correctly predicting actual events and thereby “underestimating the potential stupidity of the Chinese Communist Party” “

  11. Alliana says:

    very true. that would go against all their efforts of censhorship. an outstanding post, as usual. well, so far from what i’ve read anyway. as anyone can see, i am new here. *goes off to read more while pretending to do homework*

  12. […] alone on the opposite side of the ledger, Sinostand’s Eric Fish had questioned the “actual execution to be televised” meme before the fact and was […]

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