Bullet in the head: Marquee executions and public communication

As has been widely reported, the Chinese government has got round to making an official example of Zheng Xiaoyu, the disgraced former head of the State Food and Drug Administration who became the poster-boy for China’s rippling food and drug scandals. In their eagerness to send a message, they got round to it quite quickly; from sentencing to execution in about six weeks. American capital punishment supporters can only dream of being able to dispatch ne’er-do-wells with such efficiency. Zheng’s story is nicely recapped in a New York Times article by David Barboza.

Everyone who comes to China or learns Chinese rapidly becomes acquainted with one of China’s entry-level proverbs, “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys”, meaning to make an example of someone. It’s a phrase that has been thrown around a lot with regard to this case. To Imagethief’s mind, China has probably killed the wrong chicken.

Executions have a long tradition as public communication. That’s why, historically, executions have either been public or very well publicized. Look what we do to murderers/ robbers/ adulterers/ royalists/ deserters/ partisans/ corrupt mandarins/ spin doctors, etc. It could happen to you, so stay in line. Whether or not executions are effective as a deterrent is debatable (and widely debated). But that they are used as communication is indisputable.

Imagethief is not a fan of the death penalty. I feel that it is often applied in my own country more as vengeance and social catharsis than justice, with substantial class and racial biases. I am also not convinced of its value as a deterrent. You can always tell which governments are really serious about using death as a tool of policy because they are the ones that skip the public communication element and simply disappear people. Word of mouth does the rest. If you really want to keep the public on its toes, that seems to be the way to do it.

However I must concede that the public communication value of executions extends beyond deterrence. For example, a death penalty can be employed as a demonstration of government resolve or as proof of piety. Looked at that way, you might reword the hoary Chinese idiom into “killing a chicken to demonstrate institutional resolve to the monkeys,” but that doesn’t reduce elegantly to four characters.

So was Zheng Xiaoyu’s execution supposed to be a deterrent or a demonstration of resolve? Looking at the (somewhat spotty) English translation of the People’s Daily editorial hailing the execution, perhaps a little of both:

Death penalty handed to Zheng Xiaoyu has fully proven the will and desire of the people across China, eloquently showed the spirit of the fairness and justice of legal sanction as well as the firm resolve of the Party and the state. For corrupt officials, no matter whoever he is, what a high position he occupies and how deep he has hid himself, probes into the cases he is involved will be carried out resolutely and thoroughly, but no indulgence or soft hand will be granted to him.

Death penalty handed to Zheng Xiaoyu indicates that laws are stipulated in explicit terms, penalty is meted out in strict compliance with his crimes, and punishments commensurate with his duty.


As part of the effort to cope with corruption, no “extraordinary and special” Party members are allowed to stay aloof the laws and no corrupted elements permitted to have any place to hide themselves. Whoever daring to commit outrages and run amuck in defiance of state laws will be subjected to severe punishment of the Party disciplines and the state laws.

Imagethief also particularly likes one throwback line in which conjures up the best of Maoist-style righteous, nationalist rhetoric:

A few individual Party officials, prompted by interests and money, nevertheless, have gone crazy to the defiance of laws, and Zheng and his ilk belong to such jackals from the same lair.

“Jackals from the same lair” is a slightly more advanced Chinese saying meaning roughly, “cut from the same nasty cloth”, and has been used before in Chinese government communication to describe people such as Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, Indian reactionaries and British imperialists, and, as a variation on the same idea but with a shuffling of enemies, Soviet revisionists and US imperialists. It’s nice to see the People’s Daily reaching for some trusty, old tools.

The question then remains, was Zheng’s execution effective as public communication? This depends who the audience was. If the audience was other senior cadres, possibly, but with qualifications. If the audience was the public, I think not.

The problem with using punishment as a deterrent, besides having to communicate it, is that the threat needs to be credible and proximate. People need to believe that it if they transgress, punishment is likely to befall them. I’m not a criminologist or lawyer, I’m a communication expert, so I’ll stick to looking at this in terms of the beliefs that might exist and the messages that might be communicated and received around such situations.

What makes the threat of punishment real to someone? I would suggest that a potential criminal has to believe three things: That the likelihood of being caught is high enough to factor into their calculations; that if caught the punishment will be enforced; and that the punishment itself will hurt.

A lot of legislation and police work is bound with communication campaigns to ensure that the right people are convinced of these three things. For example, my own state of California produced the memorably titled and widely publicized “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, whereby a third felony conviction is an automatic life sentence. (It was widely applied, too, and helped to clog up our jails to the delight of the California prison lobby.)

Assuming a rational and intelligent actor (an immense assumption, I realize — after all, the world is rife with crimes of passion and moronic criminals) these three risk factors will be weighed against potential rewards in a decision as to whether or not to misbehave. So an authority that wants to encourage good behavior ought to communicate credibly on all three fronts (assuming that counting on people’s essential goodness is, ahem, sometimes not enough). You will be caught. You will be punished. And it’s gonna hurt. If any one of those three things isn’t believed, your communication is probably ineffective. This is true at any scale. It’s why governments advertise that they execute people (or even just fine them) and why your mom told you that she had eyes in the back of her head and that you’d lose your allowance if you fought with your little brother and that she was serious. And probably busted you once or twice just to prove it.

Making a public spectacle of a punishment, say by widely publicizing it in the media, is part of this process. The problem is that when an occasional person is conspicuously made an example of, people are apt to discount the message. It was political. He was unlucky. He didn’t have good enough connections. He was stupid. He was a much bigger fish than I was. All of these rationalizations are ways that potential misbehavers might distance themselves from the person being made an example of, diminishing that sense of the likelihood of being caught.

If you don’t think you’ll get caught, the other two factors –the likelihood and severity of punishment– are irrelevant. All that stands between you and tainted lucre is, well, your conscience. Furthermore, it’s easier to distance yourself from someone who is unlike you. That’s why Zheng’s execution might be a reasonably strong message to senior cadres and civil servants, and a fair demonstration of party resolve, but why it probably doesn’t mean much cadres out in the provinces or to the guy making counterfeit drugs in the suburbs of Bengbu. (This idea of identification works in reverse as well, and it’s why you use role models to advertise to people.)

So if the occasional, high profile punishment is ineffective, what might work?

Let’s start with an assumption: People have to believe that the institutions responsible for the processes of identifying transgressors and dispensing punishment cannot be easily short-circuited. This doesn’t mean that you need western-style rule of law for punishment to be effective, but it does mean you need to demonstrate consistency. The Taliban were ferociously effective based on the simple expedient of consistently shooting or beating to death anyone they thought wasn’t toeing their line. It was repulsive and barbarous, but it worked.

China probably aspires to a less arbitrary process than the Taliban had, even if it sometimes doesn’t look that way. But this is where endemic corruption causes problems because it short-circuits the institutions and processes by which lawbreakers are identified and punished, rendering them terribly inconsistent. In the absence of consistent proof, communication is reduced to noise. Ultimately, it’s not enough just to say it. You need to do it regularly or people stop listening. The most effective PR, remember, is based on actual deeds.

But you can’t line up everyone against the wall and shoot them (unless you’re the Taliban). So what should China do?

What would be effective in the long term is to launch and visibly communicate a nationwide campaign of much tougher enforcement against garden variety businesses and businessmen who cut corners, make unsafe products or skirt the rules, and against local and provincial regulators and cadres who are found to be corrupt. If garden variety misbehavers believe there is a real chance they’ll get a painful fine or jail sentence, that their businesses will be closed or that they’ll be successfully sued, then they might reconsider the percentages. If they don’t believe that, they won’t care whose head gets rolled in Beijing.

It won’t be the distant threat of execution that does the trick, but the immediate threat of a routine inspection. Beijing shouldn’t avoid punishing corrupt senior officials, but hearing that the guy up the street got raided despite being the cousin of the head of the local PSB will be much more effective than a distant guillotining in the capital. Many such examples –by which I mean thousands– would provide the basis for a much more broadly effective communication campaign.

To China’s credit, the government is trying to do this. Recent announcements thathundreds of businesses have been closed for safety violations are a start. But ultimately it becomes a question of scale and that’s where the problems seem insurmountable. Without root-and-branch reform of its institutions, and there are eight involved in food alone, it may simply be impractical for China to enforce this kind of program at any meaningful scale. In that case, there is little alternative for the government to continue to rely on “showcase” prosecutions to make its case, ineffective though they are.

This is also where government control of media and public expression exert a cost. If you can’t build credibility from the top down, an alternative might be to aid communication from the bottom up. Grass-roots anger from Chinese people who are the victims of many of China’s quality problems and scams could be a powerful thing. So could a less fettered media, free to range across the country and peer more deeply into dank corners. But the media is prone to many of the same problems as government institutions, compounded by regulations that make it difficult to report on issues that the government finds sensitive.

Charitably, Zhen Xiaoyu’s execution shows the government’s resolve to attack its institutional problems as starting point for better enforcement at all levels. Less charitably, it will sail over the heads of the small-time crooks and entrenched powers responsible for so many of China’s problems and doom Mr. Zheng to being just one more in a line of long-forgotten high-profile examples.

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