Execution Day In Zhengzhou

Wu Hongda with John Creger

China has a long history of capital punishment, and 1990 proved to be no exception to its death penalty legacy. More than 1,000 people were executed last year during a seven month campaign to fight crime. Unlike death penalty cases in the United States which may last many years, the process in China is much more expedient. A person can be arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced to death, appeal the decision, and be executed all in one week. In China, the execution method is a bullet in the back of the head. During the early 1980s, the families of the executed were made to pay the cost of the bullet.

Public executions have also been quite common. Just as recently as December 1990, in the city of Xian, a rally was held in the city’s sport stadium where 39 people were paraded in front of a huge crowd. Immediately afterward, the 39 were executed.

Professor Wu Hongda, who wrote the following first-hand account of a public execution in China, is currently a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Professor Wu is the author of the just published “Laogai: The Chinese Gulag” (Westview Press), which is based on his personal experience of nineteen years imprisonment in labor camps in China.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping's relatively moderate policies of steady modernization, relaxed state control over production, and individual initiative have brought China to the point of entering into widespread exchanges, including trade with the West. Enthusiastic about China’s opening, Western often mistake the reports of increased economic freedom inside China for signs of incipient democracy.

But we Chinese know that there are many faces to what is happening in China under Deng Xiaoping. In the fall of 1983, as a teacher from a university in another part of China, I led a group of graduate students in field work outside Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, on the Yellow River plain in north central China. For almost 3,000 years, from perhaps 1,500 B.C. to A.D. 1,200, the city was the centre of China’s cultural and political life. Today, under socialism, the area around Zhengzhou is mainly agricultural, producing much of the nation’s wheat and some of its corn. One morning while on this field expedition, my students and I witnessed an event, carried out at Deng’s order, which shows a face China rarely turns to the West.

The morning of September 23, 1983, was clear and warm in North China. It was what we call there a golden autumn. The sky was deep blue and the warm air hung with sweet smell of cut wheat. Fields of the light brown wheat stubble stretched in from the countryside to the outskirts of Zhengzhou. My students and I had not gone to the field as usual that day, but had stayed in our dormitory on the city’s main street to analyze soil samples for my students thesis work. Around 10:30 one of the students came up to my room where we were working to ask permission to go to parade which he had just heard was about to begin. Curious, I gave permission and we all went down to the street.

As visitors in Zhengzhou, we had heard nothing about a parade. No announcements had been posted of printed in the newspapers. No official holiday had been declared. But I could see the number of expectant people pouring onto the streets that for sometime the peasants and workers, the cadres and students and small children of Zhengzhou had known: an execution day was coming.

Of course no one knew who or how many were to be killed, or for what crimes. Unless it is deemed politically necessary to publicize them, execution in China are kept secret and carried out under tight security. This time, though, the news must have come quietly down from the city’s highest cadres and through Party branches to schools, factories, shops, and hospitals. So, I saw, the Party means to instruct the people with a show. It means to give them lucky eyes...

In a city of two million it seemed all work and school had come to a stop. I estimated later that close to half the city's population -- almost a million people -- must have left their jobs and classrooms. People crowded into every available place-along the sidewalks, on steps, jammed in doorways. Faces pressed at each small window of the five-storey red and yellow brick buildings. Soldiers and policemen stood along the streets at intervals to keep the way clear.

A shout went up the four-land main street: “It’s coming!” At once everyone froze still and silent. People stood on tiptoe and small children sat on shoulders.

First it was the sound of motorcycle engines. Then fifteen or sixteen armed policemen on two-and three wheelers came slowly into sight. The only sound above the low-throttled engines was the crackle of a police radio.

The main attraction followed immediately: forty-five flatbed trucks, one after another, rolled by at no more than 5 m.p.h. Since the police department had very few of its own, the trucks had been borrowed from factories, all different makes and colors. At the front of each truck bed, just behind the cab, stood an condemned man bound with heavy rope. The rope ran in an “X” across his chest and around to his back, holding in place a tall narrow sign. On the top half of each sign was an accusation: “Thief,” “Murderer,” “Rapist.” On the bottom half was the accused name, marked through with a large red “X”. The prisoners seemed to be wearing their own tattered clothes. Each was flanked by two policemen.

When we have seen something special, we Chinese say that our eyes have been lucky. The thought crossed my mind that the parade was moving so slow to give the people lucky eyes. Parading criminals this way is a practice going back deep into Chinese feudalism. For two thousand years we have been conditioned to feel we are fortunate to see such things.

The forty-five carried themselves in various ways. Some were standing with their heads down. Others carried their heads upright, defiantly. Others wept openly, seeming full of remorse at their crimes, of perhaps despairing of clearing their names. As the trucks rolled past, some of the condemned turned their heads from side to side, staring wide-eyed as if the whole scene were unreal and they were already on the way to the West Heaven of common people’s traditions.

I thought of the many Chinese movies and novels that continually show scenes of Guomindang (Nationalist) and Japanese executions of Communists during the Party’s thirty-year struggle for power, in which a hundred thousand Communists died. Before being executed, the heroes are asked if they have anything to say. Invariably they shout out, 'Long Live Chairman Mao!' or 'Long Live Marxism!' And just before dying they break into the Internationale.

But this day in Zhengzhou, if any of the forty-five had something to say to the people, no one heard it. Another, more slender rope was draped around each condemned man’s neck, If he had began to shout or struggle, we all knew one of the policemen standing beside him would have pulled on the choking rope. If he continued, the other policeman had a small dagger. Driven in the back and left undisturbed, the dagger would left no blood escape. The two policemen could then hold the body up all the way through the parade and execution. For the performance must go on. The people must receive some education.

Behind the trucks came about twenty-five small black cars, carrying fifty or sixty party or police cadres. Very slowly the parade wound through the main streets of Zhengzhou, attracting followers at every turn. By the time it reached the outskirts of the city, perhaps a hundred thousand of the million onlookers in the city were actively following. The streets were strewn with trash, everyone was stumbling and streaming with sweat and out of breath, but still they follow the forty-five trucks. Some rode bicycles. Most, like me, alternately ran and walked. We knew the most dramatic act was coming.

Three miles outside the city a dry creek bed widens out into a corn field. The widening is may be two hundred by four hundred yards. Yellow banks from three to six feet high form a huge natural amphitheater. Corn the height of a man grows on the banks, up to their edges. And below, a fine green grass covers the creek bed. The horde following the parade swept onto the site, flattening the corn on the banks. I followed along in the crowds, wondering, why are we trampling food to watch people killed!

The lower end of the widening is bound by a highway, the same height as the banks. The parade vehicles sat in formation on the road, stopping all other traffic. A ramp, in the right corner, led from the road down to the creek bed. A loose ring of policemen in white jackets and blue pants stood around the edges of the creek bed to keep the people from spilling from the banks down into the grass.

Out in the center was a row of wooden stakes with circular signs numbered one to forty-five. About six feet in front of each stakes a hole had been dug, roughly a foot in diameter and six inches deep. The cadres got out of their cars, walked down the ramp, and stood in a group, looking over the preparations. The accused already had been brought down from the truck beds and were being kept in waiting beside the trucks.

Three red flares suddenly shot high into the sky from the road somewhere behind the prisoners. Each escorted by two white and blue uniformed policemen, the accused were now marched rapidly down the ramp, the signs still tied behind them. Some had lost the use of their legs from fear. These the policemen dragged to their places.

The moment the forty-fifth reached his place, three green flares launched into the air. Before they fell out of sight, from seemingly nowhere a line of forty-five green-uniformed policemen carrying rifles filed quickly into the creek bed. They took position behind each prisoner.

Several second after the last policeman reached his place, three yellow flares went up. The two escorting policemen in blue and white caught each man behind the knees, forcing him to kneeling position, and then separated to each side. In unison, the green-uniformed policemen stepped forward and put rifle barrels within ten inches of the back of the accused heads.

The forty-five shots rang out in one voice.

Together, the bodies jerked forward and splayed out in different ways on the grass, bloody pieces landing in both sides of the holds, and some actually in the holes. The ring of the policemen below the banks held the staring crowd back. A hundred and thirty-five policemen two escorts and one executioner for each prisoner made a single line, marched quickly back to the trucks, and were driven away. Their job was finished.

Down the ramp came fifteen or sixteen white-gloved policemen with clipboards and pistols. Stopping at every body they jotted notes on the clipboards. A few of the bodies, not having been hit squarely, still lay twitching or quivering. These were shot again.

The cadres stood briefly at the bottom of the ramp discussing something. Then they looked at their watches, walked up to their cars, and drove back to the city. The white-gloved policemen with the clipboards filed into two of the remaining trucks. I glanced at my watch. It was twelve noon.

The only officials remaining were the twenty or thirty policemen who now were ringing the bodies. Suddenly, as the cadres’ cars went out of sight down the highway, the people surged down from the banks and closed in, shouting. The front rows broke through the police line to where the bodies lay, and stopped short in horror as they got near enough to make out details. But the pressure behind them was too great: many were pushed ahead and forced to trample the bodies. Some fell sprawling over them. One man beside me was pushed out of his shoes. Kids screamed at the sight of blood and pieces of skull. Some blood got on my shoes. To protect the bodies, a policeman pulled out one of the numbered stakes, scooped up some brains on the circular sign, and held the people at bay with it. They reared back ten or fifteen feet in a circle around him.

An hour or so later, along with most of the crowd, I left. but I heard that at midnight, under a bright moon, several thousand people remained staring at the bodies, and that through the night others continued coming.

Most of the executed’s families did not come to claim the bodies, although they would have had to pay just the minimal “bullet fee” to take possession. It wasn’t only that the bodies were badly mutilated. It was necessary to draw a clear line between an executed relative and oneself. Claiming the body would demonstrate that one still had some sympathy with a criminal. So the bodies remained displayed until the third day, when they were taken somewhere and disposed of.

The following day everywhere in the city the city court posted announcements, with pictures of ten executed’s mutilated upper bodies. They described the criminals, their backgrounds, and their various crimes. Nowhere was there and any discussion of the justice of the sentences. No mitigating circumstances of any kind were mentioned. There had been no trials; no one really knew what kind of people had been killed.

But the people knew there were Party activists circulating among them dressed as peasants, listening for inappropriate opinions. So they gathered in front of the announcements and chattered about the misfortune of the executed’s families. Many of them had had lucky eyes. But no questioning showed in their faces...

This one performance was finished. Across China that September and October there were many shows. This one in Zhengzhou ran twice again. and China has thirty provincial capitals. Shanghai sent a hundred and one purported criminals on to West Heaven; Wuhan, sixty-eight; Peking, maybe seventy-nine. Inside China many have guessed at the number killed during that golden autumn of 1983. Some put it at 80,000. Some at 150,000. But this is only guess work.

The number almost certainly runs well into six figures. During those two months every provincial capital and country seat in China has two thousand countries. If every country executed only five, the tally would come to 10,000. If ten, 20,000. And if the play was produced three times, how many?

I don’t know.

One man, though, knows. He ordered all the fresh clipboard reports sent to his office. Like all Chinese, Deng Xiaoping is very proud of five thousand years of civilization. And government of, by, and for the people is no more a part of Deng’s policies than it is part of China’s historical legacy.

This too is a face of what is happening in China.



Subject Headings

Capital Punishment  China  Crime & Punishment  Criminal Justice System  Criminals



The Capital Punishment Debate (Chinese text)
The Capital Punishment Debate - English
Kara Śmierci
La Peine Capitale
El Debate de la Pena Capital

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