BEIJING — During a two-hour television broadcast that was part morality play, part propaganda tour de force, the Chinese government on Friday sent four foreign drug traffickers to their deaths after convicting them of killing 13 Chinese sailors two years ago as they sailed down the Mekong River through Myanmar.
Although the live program ended shortly before the men were executed by lethal injection, it became an instantly polarizing sensation, with viewers divided on whether the broadcast was a crass exercise in blood lust or a long-awaited catharsis for a nation outraged by the killings in October 2011. Some critics said the program recalled an era not long ago when condemned prisoners were paraded through the streets before being shot in the head.
"Rather than showcasing rule of law, the program displayed state control over human life in a manner designed to attract gawkers," Han Youyi, a criminal law professor, wrote via microblog, China's version of Twitter. "State-administered violence is no loftier than criminal violence."
One prominent rights lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, insisted that the show, by the national broadcaster CCTV, violated Chinese criminal code by making a spectacle of the condemned. "I found it shocking," he said in an interview.
The program largely focused on Naw Kham, the Burmese ringleader of a drug gang who was accused of orchestrating the brutal execution of the sailors and then making the crime appear drug related. In a nation where millions work overseas, sometimes in dangerous corners of the world, the killings were especially unsettling.
Last April, six men, including Naw Kham, were apprehended in Laos by a team of investigators that included officers from China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Naw Kham and his accomplices were convicted in November during a two-day trial in China's southwest Yunnan province. The condemned men, including a Laotian, a Thai and a third of unknown nationality, reportedly confessed to the crime.
The two other men who escaped execution received long prison terms.
Last month a Chinese public security official told a newspaper that Beijing had considered using a drone strike to kill Naw Kham but later decided to capture him alive. Given the considerable viewership on Friday, that decision proved to be a public relations coup.
Supporters of the program were many, and enthusiastic. One blogger suggested that death by lethal injection was too lenient, adding, "These beasts should be pulled apart by vehicles."