Execution or Murder? Chinese Look for Justice in Street Vendor’s Death

This morning, a Chinese street vendor named Xia Junfeng was executed. Xia had been found guilty of murdering two urban enforcers, known colloquially as chengguan, in 2009. Xia’s lawyers argued he acted in self-defense, presenting six eyewitness accounts and statements from doctors who saw Xia’s injuries to show that the two chengguan had beaten Xia. But the courts ruled the killing an intentional homicide and sentenced Xia to death.

By and large, the Chinese public appears to agree with the defense: in a 2011 online survey, over 80% of respondents said they felt that Xia should have received neither a death sentence nor life in prison. After Xia’s execution, many voiced criticism of Xia’s trial and its outcome openly on Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-like social media platform. Xia’s name was the most-searched term for the day, and the most widely-shared post of the day was written by Xia’s wife, Zhang Jing, while en route to see him for the last time. This online outcry comes in the immediate wake of a recent crackdown on online expression in China, in which broad new laws threaten jail time for Weibo users whose posts are deemed to be “rumors” and are shared by enough people.

Xia Junfeng and his family.

This is not the first time a dubious execution has drawn the Chinese public’s ire. On July 12, businessman Zeng Chengjie was executed for fraud before authorities had notified his family. The fraud conviction was based on the fact that Zeng was insolvent; but he was determined to be insolvent only after the government sold his assets at a low price during the proceedings. In June of this year, a man named Wang Shujin confessed to a crime for which another man—Nie Shubin—had already been executed. Because accepting Wang’s confession would mean the courts had killed an innocent man, prosecutors rejected it outright.

A great amount of discussion surrounding Xia’s trial and execution focused on legal rights and protections in China. Weibo users complained that not all citizens are treated equally under the law. Wrote one, “Let’s get to the point: [Xia] can be sentenced to death, [but] what the people want is justice under the law. Why can chengguan kill someone and it’s like nothing happened? Discuss.” Another wrote, “Violent enforcement of the law has never been right. What right do chengguan have to commit violent acts against street vendors? Who gave them the right to commit violence against the people?”

Others wrote that Xia’s case proved that the law was not applied equally to the powerful and powerless. One Weibo user wrote, “So ordinary Chinese lives don’t count, but those of officials do? If you have money and power, you can get out of the death penalty?” Gu Kailai, the wife of former prominent politician Bo Xilai, was also convicted of murder but received a suspended death sentence, which can be commuted to life in prison.

As a street vendor, Xia operated in a gray area; while technically illegal, street vending is widely practiced in China, with laws against it unevenly enforced. Chinese law enforcement has outsourced the unsavory business of handling this problem to chengguan, who are highly unpopular because they can—and sometimes do—commit violent acts against vendors with relative impunity. As one user wrote, “[Xia] killed too few, not worth it. When chengguan pigs die they’re called martyrs, and the government still pays them with our taxpayer dollars; what a worthless government.”

Some of the anger surrounding Xia’s execution was directed at market reforms that have liberalized China’s economy. Formerly an employee at a state-run factory, Xia was laid off from his old post and forced to sell kebabs on the street. In the past, jobs at state-owned companies were known as “iron rice bowls” because of their relative security and steady pay. Since market reforms began in the early 1980s, such jobs have been increasingly hard to come by. One user wrote, “What has happened to China? Where are the justice and fairness that are being talked about? Looking at China’s Gini coefficient now … didn’t we agree on communism? Maybe China should look to the past, and reflect as it develops.”

Much ado has been made of instances where online outcry seemingly forces Chinese authorities to respond to citizens’ demands. Wu Ying, a businesswoman sentenced to death for financial crimes, had her sentence commuted to life in prison after Weibo users rallied to her support, leading many Web users to proclaim cause and effect. But online support did not save Xia.

While some posts about Xia were deleted from the platform, others were left untouched, another sign that the government uses more subtle forms of influence to shape public opinion than the simple suppression of all dissenting voices. Despite what appear to be recent efforts by the government to reduce political discussion online, Xia’s controversial execution was still the most talked-about subject on Weibo. This means that many Web users remain invested in issues of economic and social justice. It also might mean that their government remains willing to listen.


What Chinese people are really discussing is the unequal treatment of the elites compared to the ordinary working person. 

Gu Kailai gets life in a cushy jail after murdering a foreign business associate, apparently in cold blood. But Xia Junfeng is swiftly executed for defending himself againstchengguan, the urban enforcers whose very name has become a synonym for thuggish, violent behavior towards China's underclass of street vendors. 

Despite a growing debate about it, I believe capital punishment still enjoys wide support from the Chinese public. 

I agree with both Liz and Jeremy. Chinese netizens are talking about both, but the point they want to make is: the system is wrong. It is wrong because authorized thugs can not only rough up a poor street vendor, as six witnesses from the defendant’s side testified, but those same thugs are also treated as martyrs. It is wrong because high profile politicians and their family members get (only) life sentences for corruption, negligence and murder. But these trials are boasted of as transparent and fair.


In this case, I’m asking the same questions as most Chinese netizens: “Why was Xia Junfeng, a poor migrant worker, executed for murder when the court could not even show convincing evidence of motivation, or rule out self-defence?” “Why was he not even allowed to take a picture of himself as a souvenir for his 13-year-old son before the execution”?


But I reckon this is just anger. If we step back a bit, several questions still need answers: 1) Why did the authorities reject the defense lawyer’s request to show footage from a surveillance camera? 2) Why were the six witnesses for Xia not allowed to testify? 3) Why did the Supreme Court intentionally overlook inconsistent evidence, which might have led to a retrial?

The official Global Times lamented online comments, and claimed sentiments expressed in cyberspace don’t represent real public opinion. But this is really not the point. Until these questions are answered (perhaps by the Global Times editors), I think the sympathies and furies expressed online are liable to rage on.

Many might be championing the court’s independent decision–making, and its insensitivity to interference from the media and online sentiments. But this legal process is by no means progress for the status of China’s legal system. Until we see such progression any individual could be handed the same fate as Xia Junfeng. Here, I’m with my fellow netizens on the Chinese Internet.