An outcry in China over the death sentence for a gruesome revenge killing of a village official raised hopes that authorities here were prepared to entertain a new conversation about rural injustice and the death penalty.
But Jia Jinglong’s execution for murder on Tuesday morning has made him, instead, the latest symbol of China’s draconian unwillingness to broker discussion that calls into question Communist Party rule.
Hours before Mr. Jia’s death by lethal injection, the state-run People’s Daily, among the country’s most authoritative government voices, raised his case in a dark unsigned article that warned against challenging the system.
The article suggests the legal experts and media commentators who questioned the execution of Mr. Jia are free to air their thoughts in private, but not in public.
“The law must be trusted,” it wrote. “Every citizen, especially those close to the law, should spontaneously defend judicial authority, and should not challenge it at will, based on personal preference or prejudice.” Anyone guilty of damaging public trust in judicial authority, it says, should be punished “in order to purify the Internet environment.”
Under President Xi Jinping, China has staged a sweeping crackdown on dissent that has included more severe control of speech, particularly online, and the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of lawyers and activists who have sought to fight violations of the country’s own constitution.
China’s execution of Mr. Jia echoes its jailing of lawyers, “since in both instances, the government was fearful of the power of public opinion in sensitive legal cases,” said Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee.
Mr. Jia’s execution took weeks longer than expected to carry out in a country with strict timelines for carrying out the death penalty, a sign authorities may have been reconsidering.
Public pressure seems to have pushed them away from leniency.
“For the sake of maintaining the authority of the law and not showing weakness, they felt compelled to carry out the execution,” Mr. Nee said.
But public discussion of Mr. Jia’s plight was “very normal,” said lawyer Si Weijiang, who helped with Mr. Jia’s case. “No matter what country you are in, people talk about court verdicts. These discussions are good for the legal system. It does not mean that those who disagree with you are bad people.”
Lawyer Gan Yuanchun, who represented Mr. Jia, declined comment on the renewed calls for suppression of speech. What happened to Mr. Jia, he said, “is a tragedy of two broken families caused by an illegal, violent demolition.”
Mr. Jia murdered his local village head with a nail gun in 2015 after his family’s rural home was torn down days before he planned to hold his own wedding inside. Mr. Jia’s father had been coerced into signing an agreement to allow demolition of the house, and Mr. Jia blamed the official for authorizing the destruction.
With the house gone, his fiancée left him, and village officials rebuffed his attempts for compensation. His death sentence was confirmed by China’s Supreme Court in late October.
Opposition to Mr. Jia’s execution came even from within China’s state-run media. “We feel strongly that the order must not be carried out,” said China Daily in an unsigned English-language column in late October. The demolition of the home, the paper wrote, had left him “helpless, hopeless, with no way to have justice done.”
It added: “When residents are victimized by those who have power in their hand, they should not be deprived of the hope of having their wrongs addressed and justice delivered.”
On Monday, a dozen prominent Chinese legal scholars and lawyers released a public letter calling for a halt to his execution, saying rural citizens lack proper legal avenues to protect their interests or fight back when they have been wronged. China’s Supreme Court had violated its own criminal law standards in sentencing to death a man willing to turn himself in, and with little chance of committing further crimes, they wrote.
They called for changes to China’s capital punishment system, including the abolishment of restrictive timelines for the presentation of a legal defence. China’s courts, they said, should give equal treatment to all defendants, a reference to the wealthy and powerful officials whose death sentences are commonly commuted even as poor rural residents are executed.
Land disputes are among China’s most common sources of public anger and their victims often win much sympathy. Though it oversees an authoritarian system, China’s leadership is sensitive to public criticism, which it must either quell or mollify to maintain its legitimacy.
In acknowledgment of the outcry over Mr. Jia’s treatment, China’s Supreme Court issued a lengthy response on Tuesday, saying Mr. Jia was executed “strictly in accordance with the law,” for what it called an “extremely serious” crime that had involved premeditation, the use of a gun and the creation of what it called “serious social impact.”
That a Chinese court would feel compelled to defend itself “may indicate that although this case ended in tragedy for almost everybody involved, the public outcry might bring about some long-term progress,” Mr. Nee said. Not only did the Chinese public gain a rare glimpse into a system of execution usually shrouded in secrecy, but the “intense scrutiny of the court’s decision will most likely force judges to act with greater restraint in the future.”
Mr. Jia was allowed a brief meeting with family members Tuesday morning before his execution. He gave them a handwritten poem to distribute.
“Innocence was overthrown,” it says.
“The sorrowful, empty moon hangs thin and pallid. I may not have many days left.”
– With reporting by Yu MeiReport Typo/Error