A street vendor who killed two urban management officers during a conflict four years ago was executed in Northeast China's Liaoning Province on Wednesday, after the Supreme People's Court (SPC) upheld a controversial ruling that has been challenged over the past four years.
The execution of Xia Junfeng triggered widespread public discussion over the justice of the ruling, and once again led to scrutiny over the urban management or chengguan system, which has a poor reputation for using violence or abusing power during enforcement.
The SPC upheld the death sentence handed down to Xia, 36, for the intentional homicide of two urban management officers and severely injuring another, according to an official statement from the Intermediate People's Court of Shenyang.
On May 16, 2009, Xia got into conflicts with some urban management officers over his illegal kebab stall on the street and was taken to their office, where he stabbed two officers, Shen Kai and Zhang Xudong, to death and injured Zhang Wei, another officer, the court said.
Xia was sentenced to death six months later and appealed on the grounds that he was acting in self-defense after the officers attacked him first. The appeal was rejected by the Liaoning Provincial Higher People's Court in May 2011.
Xia met with his family members Wednesday morning before he was executed, but his request for a photo with the family was declined.
"My husband said it was self-defense and asked us to continue appealing for him. I am too disturbed now to think of how to proceed," Zhang Jing, Xia's wife, told the Global Times, adding that she would claim his ashes Thursday.
The public were sympathetic to Xia's case, which came under national attention over the past four years.
The case triggered wide legal debate that focused on whether Xia's acts constituted self-defense or excessive defense, and if the courts had ensured procedural justice.
In a pleading submitted to the SPC in 2011 asking for a retrial, Xia's legal team, led by Chen Youxi, claimed that the court found Xia guilty based on insufficient evidence and perjury, as existing evidence could not rule out self-defense and he had no malicious intention.
The pleading also accused the court of illegal procedures as Xia's family found six witnesses to prove that he had been beaten by the chengguan on the street but none of them were allowed to testify in court.
The Wednesday statement said the SPC found the evidence solid and the verdict proper, and that Xia's act was brutal and had serious consequences.
"Both the victims and Xia had responsibility for the conflict, but Xia's crime was severe and could not be given leniency," read the statement.
The execution provoked an online outcry, with many Net users calling the verdict unjust, and claiming that Xia died because he confronted public power as a powerless civilian. Others argued that the sentence was improper as he killed the officers by negligence.
"The death penalty might be too heavy, and the officers had their faults, but Xia was not totally innocent as he deprived others of life," Wang Cailiang, a criminal defense lawyer, told the Global Times, adding that procedural justice is imperative and should be improved to eliminate doubts.
Other observers called for reform of the chengguan system, as the chaotic system had resulted in a series of tragedies in which there were casualties among both the chengguan and vendors due to a lack of clear power boundaries for the quasi-police officers.
"Chengguan and the authorities should really reflect on their work methods from this case, but the public should also realize that violent battles against improper enforcement will create a vicious cycle," Han Yusheng, a law professor with the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times, adding that public sympathy is understandable because the stereotype of chengguan has led to increasing confrontation between the vulnerable and the authorities.
Wang noted that reform of the chengguan system is urgent under rapid urbanization, but a total repudiation of it would not have any benefits.