Los Angeles Times. June 22, 1989, Thursday
TURMOIL IN CHINA
Crackdown on Dissent: Executions Evoke Chinese Slogan: “Kill A Chicken To Frighten Monkey”
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
BEIJING -- An old slogan from the Chinese Communist lexicon is popping back into conversations these days: "Kill a chicken to frighten the monkey."
The sacrificial fowl, as it were, turns out to be three men who were executed in Shanghai on Wednesday for theirallegedly violent roles in a protest movement that was overwhelmingly nonviolent.
The "monkey" consists of the more than 1,600 others detained so far in a massive sweep of protesters, the thousands more who face possible persecution for "thought crimes" and, by extension, the entire Chinese populace.
And the fear is that the bloodshed witnessed when the People's Liberation Army advanced on Tian An Men Square on the night of June 3-4 may have marked only the beginning of a terrorizing ideological purge.
Already, eight more people have been sentenced to death for allegedly battling martial law troops in Beijing and are awaiting the result of an appeal that is almost certain to be turned down. Another 17 defendants accused of "seriously endangering public order" were given death sentences, some suspended, by a court in the northeastern city of Jinan as thousands of spectators looked on.
Legal experts are concerned that the due process set forth by China's fledgling legal code may be all but ignored, resulting in a wave of summary trials and executions of the sort used frequently in recent years to eradicate common criminals.
Since the anti-crime campaign of 1983-84, justice has been dispatched with a bullet to the back of the head for an untold number of criminals, even those convicted of nonviolent transgressions such as embezzlement and theft. The government releases no data, but some Western analysts believe more than 1,000 people are executed each year in China.
In April, for example, a man was sentenced to death for pilfering $8,900 worth of loot in a burglary of the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. Also that month, the deputy director of Beijing's No. 3 Leather Manufacturing Plant, a member of the Communist Party, was ordered put to death for embezzling nearly $100,000.
Now, in its strident propaganda barrage on the airwaves and in newsprint over the last 17 days, the government has branded the pro-democracy demonstrators as "rioters" and "hooligans." That could spell mortal danger for some legitimate dissidents whose only crime was to take to the streets advocating more rapid democratic reforms.
"It's deep in the Chinese mentality that very bad people ought to be exterminated," said Jerome A. Cohen, an international lawyer in Hong Kong and a former professor of Chinese law at Harvard University.
Said another foreign lawyer based in China for several years: "Clearly, when the Chinese are trying to make moral examples out of people, they don't blanch at capital punishment."
Amid an escalating witch-hunt atmosphere, in which fugitives are being turned in by family members and friends, the fear of reprisals is so pervasive that potential victims of juridical excess do not dare speak out in their own defense.
The government line is that the student protests on Tian An Men Square brought on a counterrevolutionary uprising aimed at destroying Communist Party rule -- a charge equivalent to sedition.
In a circular issued Tuesday, the Chinese Supreme Court admonished the country's local courts to abide strictly by the law of criminal procedure, but it also said defendants accused of inciting social unrest or joining riots should be dealt with swiftly.
The lightning trials of 11 people sentenced to death in Shanghai and Beijing last week disturbed Cohen, the legal expert in Hong Kong. Little more than a week elapsed between the arrests and sentencing.
"What kind of fairness can there be, with respect to the facts and the application of the law, unless there is time for a thorough investigation and a person has a chance to defend himself?" Cohen said in a telephone interview. "These aren't just American ideals -- they're written in Chinese law."
Extensive television coverage of the arraignment of newly arrested suspects -- some of whom appear to have been physically abused -- has added to the show-trial aura of the crackdown.
"There's been no attempt to hide the fact that their faces are swollen and they've been beaten," Cohen said. "The summary nature of it and the appearence of these people suggests they have not been getting a lot of legal assistance."
Premier Li Peng set the tone for the prosecution by telling family members of three "martyrs" among soldiers who died in the attack on Tian An Men that there would be "no mercy" for the perpetrators of the violence.
"Quite a lot of rioters are yet to be apprehended, and we can in no way leave them unpunished and let them stage a comeback," Li said in a stiff meeting with the soldiers' relatives shown on state television.
One of the relatives, the tearful mother of a soldier who was hanged from a bridge by a mob and burned, was shown on the evening news broadcast five nights in a row being consoled by ranking government and military officials.
The inexorable propaganda seems to have fallen short of whipping up anti-rebel hysteria among the vast majority of Chinese who did not witness the military atrocities at the beginning of the month. But it may succeed in tugging their emotions and confusing them enough to mold public opinion in the government's favor.
The executions themselves fit into a pattern of propaganda that, in addition to "frightening the monkey" also professes to "kill one to educate 100," as another government slogan goes. Lowly criminals are put to death after public rallies, which are shown on television. Sometimes, dozens of the condemned are shot at once.
Even this carnival of punishment is an improvement over criminal procedures -- or lack thereof -- exercised during the purge of landlords and the anti-rightist campaign of the 1950s or the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Until the Deng Xiaoping regime revised the arrest law and adopted a formal code of criminal procedure in 1979, the rule of law was a fairly tenuous concept in China. Summary verdicts were issued by impromptu people's tribunals that might make today's trials seem favorable to the accused.
'A Common Commodity'
"Death was once a fairly common commodity," one veteran observer recalls of the old China.
Also, a death sentence today does not necessarily mean the end of the line for the condemned. The courts grant two-year reprieves, and sentences can be commuted for prisoners showing good behavior.
Such was the case of China's most famous inmate, Jiang Qing, the widow of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung and head of the "Gang of Four," which was accused of trying to take over the government after Mao's death. Jiang, now 75, had her death sentence suspended after a highly publicized trial in 1980.