BEIJING — During a two-hour television broadcast that was part morality play, part propaganda tour de force, the Chinese government Friday executed four foreign drug traffickers after convicting them of killing 13 Chinese sailors two years ago as they sailed down the Mekong River through Myanmar.
Although the live program ended shortly before the men were executed by injection, it became an instantly polarizing sensation, with viewers divided on whether the broadcast was a crass exercise in blood lust or a long-awaited catharsis for a nation outraged by the killings in October 2011. Some critics said the program recalled an era not long ago when condemned prisoners were paraded through the streets before being shot in the head.
“Rather than showcasing rule of law, the program displayed state control over human life in a manner designed to attract gawkers,” Han Youyi, a criminal-law professor, wrote via microblog. “State-administered violence is no loftier than criminal violence.”
The program largely focused on Naw Kham, the Burmese ringleader of a drug gang; he was accused of orchestrating the execution of the sailors and then making the crime appear drug-related. In a nation where millions work overseas, sometimes in dangerous parts of the world, the killings were especially unsettling.
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Last April, six men, including Naw Kham, were apprehended in Laos by a team of investigators that included officers from China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Naw Kham and his accomplices were convicted in November during a two-day trial in China’s southwest Yunnan province. The condemned men, including a Laotian, a Thai and a third of “unknown nationality,” reportedly confessed to the crime.
The two other men who escaped execution received long prison terms.
Last month a Chinese security official told a newspaper that China had considered using a drone strike to kill Naw Kham but later decided to capture him.
Given the considerable viewership Friday, that decision proved to be a public-relations coup.
The program included interviews with triumphant police officers, images of the condemned men in shackles and the sort of blustery talking heads that would be familiar to American cable-TV audiences. The graphic elements that flashed behind the CCTV news anchor featured the tagline “Killing the Kingpin.”
In one segment, Liu Yuejin, director general of the central government’s Narcotics Control Bureau, cast the executions as a pivotal moment for a newly confident China and for ethnic Chinese across the globe.
“In the past, overseas Chinese dared not say they were of Chinese origin,” said Liu, who led the task force that spent six months hunting the culprits. “Now they can hold their heads high and be themselves.”
Some critics said the broadcast, and the subsequent public gloating, displayed an ugly side of China, which executes more people than all other countries combined; how many remains a state secret.
To Murong Xuecun, a well-known Chinese author, the program revealed a national psyche, fed by decades of Communist Party propaganda, that craves vengeance for the years of humiliation by foreigners. “It proves that hatred-education still has a market in China,” he said in an interview.
In a commentary on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, CCTV defended the program, saying it demonstrated China’s commitment to justice.
“There were no glimpses of the execution. We only saw the drug ringleaders’ weaknesses and fear of death,” it said. “In contrast to brutal murder by his gang, the methodical court trial and humane injections have shown the dignity and civilizing effects of rule of law.”
Shortly before the men were led from their cells to the van that would take them to the death chamber, a reporter asked Naw Kham to talk about his family and then taunted him by showing him photos of the victims’ relatives.
“I want to raise my children and have them educated,” Naw Kham said with a faint smile on his face. “I don’t want to die.”