Zhang Jing got the call this morning: the execution of her husband, street vendor Xia Junfeng, was imminent.  By day's end, the sentence had been carried out. 

That he had acted in self-defense while being severely beaten in custody by a notoriously violent para-police force, that his two trials were riddled with all of the pathologies that plague the Chinese judicial system, and that the death penalty is a fundamentally cruel punishment all seem absolutely immaterial to the authorities.

Convicted in November 2009 for “intentional homicide” and sentenced to death – a sentence upheld by a higher court in May 2011– Xia’s case stemmed from an incident disturbingly common in China today. Xia, who worked in Shenyang, was selling food from his cart in May 2009 when he was approached by at least ten chengguan, para-police officers responsible for “urban management.” Thechengguan proceeded to beat him on the spot, then took him to a detention center to continue the beating. While being beaten, Xia produced a knife and stabbed to death two of the officers and injured a third.  

It’s not surprising that none of the chengguan involved in the incident appear to have been investigated or prosecuted for their conduct. It’s not even clear how these officers legally justified using force – a problem inherent in the establishment of this part of the security apparatus. To the extent they have a mandate to discipline people, it is to issue fines or tell unlicensed vendors to relocate. But hundreds of well-publicized cases of violent abuses by chengguan in recent years don’t seem to have brought about a commensurate effort to discipline them, and they have quickly become a focus of popular ire.

The chengguan’s lack of accountability is one issue in Xia’s case. But the far grimmer problem is China’s use of the death penalty.

In recent years the Chinese government has trumpeted reforms to how it applies the death penalty. It has reduced the number of crimes that permit this ultimate punishment, and mandates that higher courts review death sentences before they are carried out. But Xia Junfeng’s case shows that such reforms mean very little when parts of the domestic security apparatus operate with near-total impunity for violent abuses, and when the chronic failures of justice in courts go uncorrected. The  only real road to reform requires the abolition of the death penalty.