Execution Broadcast to Show China Won’t Be Bullied

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March 1 (Bloomberg) -- This morning in China, the state-owned television network had an unusual announcement: At 1:30 p.m. it would air a two-hour special culminating in the televised execution of four Burmese drug runners convicted of murdering 13 Chinese sailors in 2011.

This sort of spectacle is not without precedent in Chinese history. During the imperial era, emperors held leisurely executions at court. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards held them wherever was convenient. In both cases, the purpose was clear: impress upon the Chinese audience the consequences of defying the state and the Communist Party.

Yet today’s spectacle, focused on the public killing of foreigners, was something quite different: an execution designed to reassure a restive Chinese public that its leaders are not soft.

It’s a critical message. Over the last two years the Chinese government has found itself embroiled in increasingly dangerous sovereignty disputes with its Southeast Asian and Japanese neighbors. So far, diplomacy has been the preferred course of action. Yet on China’s decidedly nationalistic and highly influential microblogging platforms, diplomacy -- especially on sovereignty issues -- is unpopular and viewed as a sign of weakness.

In response, the Chinese government and its official media tribunals have carefully ratcheted up the aggressive rhetoric, especially toward Japan, since the fall of 2012, reminding Chinese that they will not be bullied by outside forces. Rather, if there will be any bullying, China will be doing it.

Today’s two-hour execution special was a much more graphic extension of this overall strategy -- and one with a willing audience. On Sina Weibo, China’s leading social networking platform, it was not hard to find microbloggers repeating variations of “China will not be bullied” as the four condemned Burmese were paraded before the cameras, their faces pale and frightened. That said, a large number of viewers also found the whole spectacle tasteless.

Nationalistic Chinese may have been the primary audience for this programming, but they were not the only viewers. Tellingly, the show was simulcast on CCTV-9, the state-run network’s English-language channel carried both in China and on cable systems around the world, with English-language commentary over the Chinese. Whether or not anyone in the English-speaking world was actually listening matters less than the simple fact that Chinese broadcasters felt compelled (or were compelled) to share images of foreigners being executed.

In the end, there was no payoff. Shortly before 3:30 p.m., and the scheduled execution, somebody at CCTV either lost nerve or developed some sudden taste, and the broadcast cut to a talking head announcing that the executions had taken place (much to the disappointment of many microbloggers).

And so, there is no footage of the poison overtaking the foreign killers: just a press release and a message clearly sent.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)