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China's live TV coverage of execution didn't go far enough

March 01, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • This frame grab taken from Chinese television CCTV shows convicted murderer Zha Xika of Laos being led from his prison cell as he is transferred for execution.
This frame grab taken from Chinese television CCTV shows convicted murderer… (AFP/ CCTV )

China executes about 4,000 people a year. On Friday, four of those people got the full reality-TV “Big Brother” treatment.

As The Times’ Barbara Demick reported:

Chinese state television Friday broadcast nearly one hour of live images of the last moments of four foreign drug traffickers about to be executed for the 2011 killing of 13 Chinese fishermen on the Mekong River. Although the cameras pulled away before the final lethal injection, the unprecedented pre-execution coverage unleashed a storm of criticism and debate about the death penalty.

Psychologists decried the live coverage as distressing  to children, while lawyers complained that it violated a clause in the criminal code against parading the condemned before execution.

And considering that it’s China we’re talking about, the push-back was surprisingly frank:

"This carnival on CCTV was a violation not only of ethics, but of the criminal code regulations that the death penalty not be carried out in public," wrote human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan on a microblog.

Not surprisingly, though, plenty of Chinese -- and a fair number of online commenters on The Times’ story -- didn’t see it that way. As Demick noted:

Although many Chinese were shocked by the live coverage, they applauded the death sentences as just retribution for a particularly violent crime. The 13 Chinese fishermen were ambushed, then shot to death while tied up with rope, their bodies dumped in the river.

That sentiment found some kindred spirits on The Times’ comment board.  

There was “khantot,” for example: “We should do this in the US. All the cons in death row should be put to death immediately. Put the event on pay per view. At $49.95 a pop and 50% of the proceeds going back to fund social programs then that should eliminate overcrowding in prisons. All 3-strikers and those convicted in violent crimes should also qualify for public execution.”

And “PAUL SCHMIDT”: “We should do the same in this Country. Execute all rapists, murderers, child molesters, drug dealers, & gang bangers with no mercy. Put all of them to death. Good for China for executing criminals with no hesitation.”

And then there was “Moe Kurly,” who, well, sort of went his own way with this rant: “This carnival on CCTV was a violation not only of ethics, etc. etc. bla bla bla... Liberals always whinning about something. Why don't they whine about the trash on American TV and the blatant liberal in your face immorality on every channel except a few not to mention all the liberal propaganda pseudo news stations. American TV is far worse than China TV big time.”

Frankly, I’m not sure which is scarier: Putting the condemned on live TV, or knowing that “khantot,”  “PAUL SCHMIDT” and  “Moe Kurly” walk the same streets as the rest of us -- perhaps armed to the teeth.

Now, around my house, I’m known as “Dad the liberal who disagrees with the death penalty.” We’ve had lively dinnertime debates on the topic -- me on one side, my wife on the other, my two boys somewhere in between, with one leaning more toward mom’s view and the other toward dad’s.

So you know where I stand. But here’s the thing: If you are going to execute people, what makes putting it on live TV so much worse? Is an execution done in a small room by a few people, with a few people as witnesses, somehow less troubling than one done in full view of millions or billions?

I don’t think so. Just like our all-volunteer military frees most Americans from the true horrors of war, hiding capital punishment from public view means we can all close our eyes to what we as a society have approved.

So go ahead, follow China’s example, and even take it one step further: Show the actual execution live.

And then, perhaps, we can have a real debate about the death penalty.

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