June 7th, 2012 Headsman
On this date last year, a young pianist turned public enemy number one was executed in China for a notorious roadside murder.
Yao Jiaxin, a 21-year-old student at Xi’an Conservatory, hit a waitress on her bike while driving in October 2010.
Seeing her taking down his car’s license plate and fearful that she would revenge herself with financial demands for her minor injuries, an infuriated Yao stabbed her to death there at the scene.
“Yao stabbed the victim’s chest, stomach and back several times until she died,” in the words of one court. “The motive was extremely despicable, the measures extremely cruel and the consequences extremely serious.”
Appropriately, the execution took place on the very day that Chinese students were facing grueling university entrance exams, like the ones Yao himself had passed a few years before.
This event sparked massive national outrage, and Yao — the ivory-tickling son of a well-off couple who worked for the defense industry but didn’t have the pull of true elites — proved to be perfectly cast for the role of public pariah in a country undergoing the cataclysmic social displacements of internal migration, urban proletarianization, social stratification, and uneven capitalistic growth. He reportedly told police in his confession that he feared that his victim, a “peasant woman[,] would be hard to deal with.”
So-called “netizens” thrilled to the scandalous murder and bombarded online communications spaces with demands for Yao’s condign execution — an offering to the hollow bromides of legal egalitarianism that people in China as everywhere else see flouted every day. Yao’s family even fed that in a backhanded way by offering the victim’s family a larger compensation than that demanded by law if they would back off their demand for execution. Those “peasants” spurned the bribe.
Despite the familiar spectacle of public bloodlust over an infamous crime, Yao’s case also had an unsettling effect for at least some. He was, after all, a promising young man undone by a moment of madness and moral frailty: his downfall was distinctly tragic, in the classical sense, and not such a stretch to read as symbolic of China’s challenges and transformations.
Palpably grief-stricken and contrite about it — his parents took him to the police station to turn himself in, and cameras tracked the frail-looking youth through his few months of legal calvary all the way to a pitiably sobbing spectacle in his final court appearance as he pleaded in vain for his life — Yao could inspire pity as well as loathing.
The nature of Yao’s crime makes him an unlikely poster-boy for ending capital punishment per se. Yet there was also something discomfiting about authorities’ theatrical and foreordained compliance with a bloodlust that they had arguably stoked.
And in a China which has moved towards dialing down executions in recent years, even Yao’s individual culpability met some overt challenge: academics and legal professionals prepared to frame it as a crime of passion or something akin to “temporary insanity,” meriting a lesser punishment.
“A lot of people felt shocked,” a Chinese death penalty opponent told a western reporter. “They felt shocked by the process. Some people thought the netizens pushed the court into giving Yao the death penalty.”
Also on this date
- 1921: William Mitchell, Black and Tan
- 1811: George Watson, the last horse thief hanged in Scotland
- 1821: Tudor Vladimirescu, Romanian revolutionary
- 1862: William B. Mumford, flag desecrator
- 1594: Rodrigo Lopez, Shylock inspiration?