BEIJING -- Millions of Chinese took to the Internet to protest the execution of a 37-year-old vendor who had stabbed to death two municipal officials he said arrested and beat him for hawking meat skewers without a license.
Xia Junfeng had argued that he was a poor, honest man who was only defending himself against the notoriously brutal urban management officers known in China as the chengguan -- and nearly 3 million Chinese agreed.
As news of his execution by lethal injection was announced Wednesday, Chinese microblogs were flooded with outrage. On one popular site alone, Sina.com, Xia’s name was the most searched of the day, and 2.8 million people posted messages, almost all supporting him.
Many contrasted his case to that of ex-Politburo member Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer by profession, who was convicted last year of premeditated murder for poisoning a British businessman. She was given a suspended death sentence, the equivalent of life in prison.
"Gu Kailai was a member of the privileged class who knew what crime she was committing," wrote one outraged critic in a comment later expunged by censors. "Xia Junfeng was struggling at the bottom of society to survive. His death is an injustice. There is only tyranny."
"Hero Xia, rest in peace. Your anti-repression spirit will continue to inspire the repressed. Your name will live in history," wrote another.
Xia’s wife said she and her mother-in-law were given 30 minutes notice Wednesday morning that they would be allowed a brief visit with the condemned man before the execution.
"He was calm. He didn’t cry. He just kept telling us that he was defending himself," Zhang Jing said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"I feel in a very confused state right now. Very bad,’’ Zhang said. "My mother-in-law is worse. She was crying and screaming and banging her head against the floor."
Xia was selling skewered sausages and chicken from a tricycle outside a market in the northeastern city of Shenyang in May 2009 when the two municipal officers confiscated his cooking equipment. They brought him back to an interrogation room without realizing he still had a cooking knife in his pocket. There, Xia told the court during his trial, an officer assaulted him.
"He began to beat me as soon as I entered the room, his fists pounding my head and ears," Xia said. "As I tried to run outside, I came face to face with [another officer]. Right away, he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist ... and kicked at my thighs.’’
Xia said he put his hand down to protect his groin and then “my hand came in contact with my knife.’’
The killing in Shenyang catapulted Xia to national celebrity, with many Chinese viewing him as a symbol of resistance. After his arrest, his wife became an activist, publicizing the case over her own microblog. The family’s fame was spread in part by their now-12-year-old son, Xia Jianqiang, a prize-winning artist whose paintings of his father have been widely viewed on the Internet.
The family has said that Xia had been operating the unlicensed food cart in hopes of raising money for the boy to attend art school in Beijing.
After three years of appeals that went up to China’s supreme court, Xia’s defense was rejected. The Shenyang province intermediate court, which had handled the original case, released a statement Tuesday saying the defendant committed “intentional homicide.’’
"The crime he committed was heinous. The method he used was extremely cruel, and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law," the court wrote.
The chengguan are widely despised in China for their brutality. Every year, there are fresh headlines about incidents in which street vendors and pedicab drivers are beaten to death.
Xia’s lawyers documented 16 such deaths going back to 2001. They said one of the officers killed by Xia had a record of abuse and had the year before broken the arm of a woman selling umbrellas without a license, according to court filings.
China executes more people each year than all other countries in the world combined, about 3,000 in 2012, according to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights organization. But the number is down significantly from a decade ago, when it was estimated at 12,000 per year.
"China has committed itself to reducing the number of executions. One hopes that a case like this one is one that will get more people questioning the death penalty," said John Kamm, Dui Hua’s founder.
Twitter: @BarbaraDemickCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun