In contrast to the triumphant strains of the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China and the raising of its red flag, hundreds of Chinese gathered in a drizzly northeastern city on Oct. 1 and quietly commemorated the life of a street vendor who was recently executed by the state.
Xia Junfeng, 36, was put to death on Sept. 25, but has since become a national icon of injustice and resistance, even though—or even because—he killed two para-policeman, called urban enforcement officers.
On May 16, 2009, he was beaten at his street stand by the two chengguan, as they are called, and then taken to a police station. Chengguan are ostensibly tasked with keeping order on China’s bustling streets, but there are countless stories of the extreme violence they mete out, with impunity, against those that cross them.
After the chengguan took Xia to the police station, he later said, they began beating him. Then, they began hitting him in the head with metal teacups and a stool. Desperate, he pulled a cooking knife from his clothing and stabbed to death the two of them, while injuring another.
Xia’s funeral procession, held on Oct. 1 attracted other street vendors, civil rights lawyers, and supporters from around China. Most of them knew about the event and Xia’s story through the Internet, and his death has become a rallying point for those unsatisfied with what they see as the Communist Party’s abuse of the legal system.
Xia’s wife, Zhang Jing, and son, held his picture with his ashes at the funeral at the Memorial Forest Cemetery in a suburb of Shenyang City in the northeast. The event took place early in the morning.
“There will be no banquet; we don’t accept gift money; no banners; and no slogans,” Zhang Jing wrote a few days previously on Weibo, a Twitter-like social Internet service, announcing the event. The post was later deleted by authorities.
Xia’s death sentence was handed down by the court based on the testimony of four other chengguan, colleagues of those he killed. But the authorities denied the opportunity to testify of many others who saw Xia being bullied and beaten beforehand, according to Xia Junfeng’s lawyer Chen Youxi, in an interview with Ku6, one of China’s largest video websites.
Injustice, Anger, Poetry
Much of the grief over Xia’s case also focuses on the recent, highly politicized punishment of Gu Kailai, the wife of the former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was given a suspended death sentence—effectively life in prison—for the premeditated murder of a British businessman.
Xia, on the other hand, was merely defending himself, they said, furious that he was executed.
“Chengguan don’t give people a chance to live. They deserve to be beaten! They’ll know that we poor people are not weak when they die from beaten!” wrote one Internet user, anonymously.
“When Chengguan killed street vendors, they were not sentenced to death; when a Party leader’s wife murdered a foreigner, she wasn’t sentenced to death; when political campaigns killed many people, the leader [Bo Xilai] wasn’t sentenced to death,” wrote Chen Zonghe, an investor and blogger, on Weibo.
“Xia Junfeng is gone,” he added. “We’ve tried hard to speak out for him for many years, but eventually we watched him being taken to the execution ground.”
Some brought flowers to his wife, while others wrote moving poetry, which she stuck onto the wall of her living room.
The rain on Oct. 1 added to the somber funeral atmosphere. “Is heaven sad and shedding tears for the suffering of China?” asked one Internet user.
The date of the funeral was particularly poignant, many felt: Oct. 1 this year is the 64th National Day of the People’s Republic of China, marking the founding of the “New China” by the Chinese Communist Party.
The authorities call it China’s birthday, but now it’s been called the memorial day for a street vendor who fought against an unjust system, and others who have been killed by communism in China.
“It’s a very special National Day this year,” said Chen, the investor. “Candlelight fills Weibo,” he added, referring to the small candle images that users post to mark sadness.
“It’s highly ironic that on one side it’s a national celebration, and on the other side it’s a small person’s sad funeral,” said the Internet user Fanrenxiaoshenke.
The duty of the chengguan, officially, is to uphold municipal bylaws regarding street appearance, passage, and where vendors may position their carts. They are, however, widely known for the shocking violence they employ while carrying on their job.
The most recent case took place in July, when a watermelon vendor was killed during a dispute with chengguan, who struck him hard in the head with his own metal scale used to weigh fruit. The case was concluded with compensation of 897,000 yuan ($146,533) paid to the family. No chengguan were sent to prison, let alone executed.
A series of pictures of chengguan beating people on the street went viral the night before National Day.
In one of the pictures, a chengguan in his uniform kneels down on a woman’s neck, pressed against the street curb. Another picture shows an elderly trash collector slouched on the ground nursing his bloodied head after being beaten by chengguan.
It was in the context of this history of violence and abuse that Xia fought back against the chengguan. “I was defending myself. I didn’t want to kill them. I’m not guilty!” Xia said to his family before his execution, his wife told Hong Kong media. “I don’t accept the sentence even if I die.”
One Internet user remarked, “When a killer becomes a hero in people’s hearts, shouldn’t we ask why? Is this society sick?”
Correction, Oct. 9. 2013: The teacups that two chengguan used to beat Xia Junfeng in the head while he was in detention, causing him to stab them to death, were made of metal, not porcelain.