Chinese authorities sparked a public outcry on Wednesday after they put to death a street vendor convicted of killing two members of China’s notorious chengguan, or “urban management officials,” who had reportedly attacked him.
Xia Junfeng, 36, had sold kebabs, or skewers of grilled meat, at a restricted city intersection in spite of official warnings, prompting his detention and an assault in which, he said, he had stabbed the officers who attacked him.
Xia’s execution in the northern city of Shenyang drew public anger and left his wife, Zhang Jing, emotionally distraught and unable to speak to reporters.
“It is not convenient for me to talk at this time,” Zhang told RFA’s Mandarin Service today.
“I am so confused. I don’t know what to say or do,” she said. “I apologize for not being able to take the interview.”
In a message posted earlier on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service, Zhang wrote that she had received notice at 6:00 a.m. that she could visit her husband before his execution, and that she and her mother-in-law had gone to see him.
Their meeting, in which they were separated by a metal fence, lasted only half an hour, she said.
The couple were refused permission to take a final photograph together, and Xia told his wife he would not sign his execution warrant—a formality in Chinese law—as he had killed in self-defense.
His final message for his son was that he should study hard in school, Zhang wrote.
Chinese netizens slammed the execution on Wednesday, with one comparing the harsh sentence handed to Xia with the suspended death sentence given earlier this year to Gu Kailai, wife of fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai, for murdering a British businessman.
"If premeditated murder by Gu Kailai doesn't result in the death penalty, then Xia Junfeng should not die," said one Weibo user, according to a Reuters report.
Xia's name was the most frequently searched term on Weibo on Wednesday, Reuters said.
Human rights lawyers based in Beijing decried Xia’s execution, saying he had been sentenced out of proportion to his crime.
“I discussed this case with 18 other lawyers, and many of them believe that Xia Junfeng acted in self-defense and that he should have been released without charge,” rights lawyer Li Heping told RFA in an interview.
“Some lawyers say that he should have been sentenced at most to five years in jail. But the final verdict was death, which was completely beyond our expectation,” Li said.
Another lawyer, Zhou Dunyong, said that though Xia may have used excessive force in defending himself against his attackers, “he was beaten up by the chengguan before he stabbed them.”
“Even if this incident was not a clear case of self-defense, Xia did not deserve a death sentence,” Zhou said.
According to a 2012 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, China’s chengguan, who are often demobilized soldiers, routinely abuse their authority in their attempts to keep city streets in order and lack effective supervision, training, and discipline.
In July, the family of a watermelon vendor beaten to death by chengguan in China’s central province of Hunan was awarded 897,000 yuan (U.S. $146,000) in compensation after his death sparked widespread public anger and clashes with police.
In October 2008, the beating of a university student by chengguan in the central city of Zhengzhou resulted in mass protests involving tens of thousands of people.
The incident followed similar protests in Hunan’s Shaoyang city in May 2008 and Sichuan’s Yibing city in November 2007.
Reported by Xin Yu and Gao Shan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Feng Xiaoming. Written in English by Richard Finney.