BEIJING — There was never any doubt that Xia Junfeng was a killer: Four years ago, in a flash of panic and fear, he stabbed to death two urban enforcement officials who had sought to punish him for operating an unlicensed shish kebab stall.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Xia, a laid-off factory worker and father of a 13-year-old boy, was put to death in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.
But in a country whose citizens widely support capital punishment, Mr. Xia’s execution has stoked a firestorm of public anger, much of it expressed through social media. Censors were kept busy all morning as tens of thousands of messages lit up China’s most popular microblog service, Sina Weibo, many of them condemning his execution.
While most focused on the belief that Mr. Xia had been unfairly convicted during a trial rife with irregularities, a number of people could not help but compare his fate with that of another recently convicted killer, Gu Kailai, the wife of a fallen Chinese leader who confessed to killing a British businessman but was given a suspended death sentence, which is akin to life in prison.
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“If Gu Kailai can remain alive after poisoning someone to death then Xia Junfeng shouldn’t be put to death,” said Tong Zongjin, a professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. “It might be a flimsy dream to insist that everyone be treated equally before the law, but it’s nonetheless unseemly to turn this ideal into a joke.”
Mr. Xia’s case evoked sympathetic coverage even from some of China’s most reliably pro-government news media. Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party, portrayed the case as a tragedy for all those involved, and on its Web site, the official Xinhua news agency ran a series of paintings by Mr. Xia’s young son, including one that appeared to depict a child running to embrace his father.
While the outpouring of compassion for Mr. Xia reflects a widespread disdain for China’s urban management officials, known as chengguan, it also highlights a lack of faith in China’s judicial system, which is heavily weighed against defendants and often takes into account the interests of the state. Teng Biao, a lawyer who represented Mr. Xia during his appeal, suggested that the sentence was intended to send the message that any challenges to the government — even to lowly code enforcement officials — would not be tolerated. “The authorities wanted to show off their muscle,” he said.
Most details of the case are not in dispute. In May 2009, Mr. Xia and his wife were selling grilled meat on the streets of the provincial capital, Shenyang, when they were confronted by as many as 10 chengguan. The men grabbed the couple’s gas cooking cylinder, tossed the skewers on the ground and then proceeded to beat Mr. Xia when he resisted. The beatings reportedly continued in a nearby chengguan office. It was then, according to his lawyers, that Mr. Xia pulled a fruit knife from his pocket and stabbed three chengguan, killing two.
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Mr. Teng said the court refused to consider testimony from six witnesses who would have made clear that Mr. Xia had acted in self-defense. In the end, the judge relied on testimony from the chengguan, as did a subsequent appeal. “This is a case of extreme unfairness under the law,” said Mr. Teng, noting that a conviction of intentional homicide requires proof that the crime was premeditated.
The case is among a string of violent confrontations involving chengguan, who are charged with enforcing sanitation codes and other rules. In July, a 56-year-old watermelon seller in Hunan Province collapsed and died on the street after a chengguan reportedly struck him in the head with a metal weight from his scale. But the agents say they, too, are victims of abuse, pointing to an episode last March in which an agent seeking to stop illegal construction in Hubei Province was killed by an angry villager who attacked him with a pickax.
Mr. Xia’s case is not dissimilar to that of a unlicensed sausage vendor in Beijing, who was convicted in 2007 of slashing to death an enforcement official who had seized his cart. The episode was closely followed by a sympathetic public but it had a different denouement: the man, Cui Yingjie, was given a suspended death sentence.
In recent months, as his case awaited a ruling from China’s highest court, Mr. Xia’s plight appeared to be drawing a groundswell of public support, which is often a factor in high-profile judicial decisions. Donations to his legal fund poured in and media accounts sought to humanize him, describing how he and his wife, a former hotel maid, had struggled to provide art classes for their only child.
A book of the boy’s paintings, published to raise funds for the family, sold out its entire 5,000-copy print run.
On Wednesday morning, after word came that the Supreme People’s Court had rejected his appeal, Mr. Xia’s wife, Zhang Jing, documented her final meeting with her husband in a series of microblog postings that riveted the country. She described how her mother fell to her knees wailing, and then recounted how the guards refused to allow one last photograph.