BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese street vendor convicted of killing two city officials was executed Wednesday despite calls for leniency, disappointing legal activists and many members of the public who say the country's justice system fails to protect the underprivileged and punishes them too harshly.
China's social media, which has been in a lull over social issues because of a government crackdown on potentially libelous speech, lit up over the execution of Xia Junfeng, making it one of the most discussed and searched topics of the day.
Xia, who grilled meat skewers at a street-side stand in the northeastern city of Shenyang, stabbed two urban management officers to death with a knife in May 2009 in a room into which he was taken over an infraction.
Xia said it was self-defense after the two officers beat him. The trial court ruled out the possibility, saying it saw no evidence of that, and convicted him of murder.
But his argument resonated with a public that has become disgusted over the impunity with which city officials impose local codes on street peddlers — often with violence. Several video clips of public beatings by the urban management officials — known as chengguan in Chinese — have gone viral in China in recent years.
Some people compared his case to that of Gu Kailai, the wife of fallen politician Bo Xilai, whose death sentence for murder was suspended.
"I am no legal expert, but I know a simple rule: If Gu Kailai can be spared of her life for a premeditated murder, then Xia Junfeng should not die," said Yao Bo, a well-known online commentator in Beijing.
Author Yi Chen called the Supreme Court's failure to halt Xia's execution "crazy," and wrote, "justice is dead."
"His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng," Yi Chen wrote in online comments he later confirmed to The Associated Press.
Xia was convicted in 2009, and a higher court later upheld the verdict. His family made a last-ditch appeal arguing that there were unanswered questions in the prosecution in their submission to the Supreme Court, which must approve all executions. But the appeal was rejected.
Shenyang Intermediate People's Court said in a statement Wednesday that the Supreme Court — in ratifying the death sentence — found Xia's crime to be "extremely vile" and his method "extremely cruel."
Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, was notified early Wednesday morning of her last chance to see her husband before the execution.
"I swear I will not cry again, so that my dear man can go in peace," Zhang posted on her microblog.
News of the execution order prompted an outpouring of calls online to spare Xia, and thousands of repostings of Zhang's comments. By midday, Xia's case soared to the No. 1 hot topic with public opinion overwhelming on his side.
China's Internet users also dug out court verdicts that sentenced urban management officials only to imprisonment for beating people to death and questioned why Xia received the harsh penalty.
Little is known of what happened in the office room where the killings occurred. Only Xia and the two victims were present. Legal experts have pointed to holes in the prosecution's case, including contradictory statements and a lack of credible witnesses.
A group of 25 human rights lawyers issued a joint statement Wednesday condemning the prosecution of Xia.
"We protest that the Supreme Court ratified the death sentence and ordered an immediate execution in a case where doubts remain," the open letter read.
Wang Jianxun, a professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, said the outcome amounted to "legal regression."
"The legal system clearly has taken the side of the urban management," Wang said. "This is an unjust verdict."