China

Chinese Social Media Gripped by Street Vendor's Execution


Zhang Jing carries the ashes of her husband Xia Junfeng, a 36-year-old street vendor, from Dongling Funeral Home on Sept. 26 in Shenyang, China

Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Zhang Jing carries the ashes of her husband Xia Junfeng, a 36-year-old street vendor, from Dongling Funeral Home on Sept. 26 in Shenyang, China

“Early this morning, the Court sent its people to summon me to see Xia Junfeng for the last time,” Zhang Jing, a young woman in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, wrote on her Sina Weibo microblog account on Wednesday morning. “I feel like I’m going crazy, but I’m getting ready to go now.” Accompanied by police escorts, she then rode to the detention center where her 36-year-old husband had been held for the last four years. After they said their last goodbyes, he was put to death—marking the tragic end of case that has sparked outrage and despair across China.

Xia, a laid-off factory worker, began selling sausages and kabobs from a street cart in Shenyang about five years ago. His wife, meanwhile, juggled two jobs as a hotel cleaning lady and a baker at a school. The couple managed to scrape by until one day in May 2009, when Xia was confronted by two chengguan—or low-level urban security officers—for operating as an unlicensed street vendor. After a bloody altercation, both chengguan were dead on the pavement. According to Zhang, her husband acted in self-defense, only lashing out after being brutally beaten himself.

Xia’s lawyer, Teng Biao, told China Youth Daily that he had found six witnesses to testify that Xia had been beaten first and acted in self-defense. But the vendor was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by Shenyang Intermediate Court in November 2009, a decision that was upheld on appeal in 2011. China’s judicial system is famously opaque, and details of the court proceedings remain impossible to verify. (The recent high-profile, semipublic trial of fallen official Bo Xilai is
the exception.)

At a time when the growing gap between China’s rich and the poor had become a lightning rod among social issues, along with the uneven distribution of resources, opportunities, and “justice,” Xia’s case attracted national attention. The death penalty has fairly widespread support in China, but many who followed the details of his case in newspapers and on social media seemed to identify with a poor street vendor allegedly attacked by thuggish low-level cops, and then sentenced harshly by a nontransparent judiciary accountable only to the Communist Party, which appoints judges.

“Let the powerless be powerful, let the sorrowful move on,” one user wrote on Sina Weibo. “This is not what we want. Fight until the darkness is gone,” wrote another. “We yelled out for four years, but they did not even [allow the family to] take a photo before the execution,” wrote another, as recorded and translated by the grassroots website Global Voices.

Even China’s state-run Global Times, which has a reputation for patriotic nationalism, ran an article on Thursday discussing the “increasing confrontation between the vulnerable and the authorities.” The newspaper interviewed Han Yusheng, a law professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who pointed out that China’s urban security officers have a troubling reputation for brutality and violence. “Chengguan and the authorities should really reflect on their work methods from this case,” he said.

Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on Xia’s case from microblogs on Wednesday and Thursday, but one haunting image can still be found: a painting by Xia and Zhang’s 13-year-old son. In vivid blues, yellows, and greens, the self-portrait depicts the son riding piggyback, clasping his father’s supportive shoulders, both of them smiling serenely. One of Xia and Zhang’s dreams had been to scrape together enough money to send their son to art school.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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