29 September 2013. On Wednesday Xia Junfeng was put to death for stabbing two urban management officials, known as chengguan.  There is nothing unusual about this story. It is indeed a common occurrence.  What set this case apart is the public belief that Xia Junfeng acted in self defence.

Tens of thousands of messages appeared on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, many of them condemning his death penalty.  They described this as a miscarriage of justice and compared this case with that of Gu Kilai, the daughter of a Communist revolutionary hero and wife of a once-powerful Chinese politician who was spared death last year after being convicted for the murder of a British businessman. The government censors in the end managed to block all these messages. During the trial Mrs. Xia had no less than 100.000 followers to her microblog website.

Global Times, a tabloid owned by Communist Party depicted this case as a tragedy for all concerned. Xinhua news agency ran a series of his paintings including the one that depicted a child running to embrace his father.

The public support came in many forms including financial assistance to his wife to fight the legal battle which she lost. Emotionally fraught paintings of the couple’s 13-year-old only son also evoked greater public sympathy. A hard cover edition of a collection of his paintings consisting of 5000 copies was fully sold out.

Media coverage sought to humanize him by portraying how he and his wife struggled to provide art classes for their son.

Six witnesses were willing to testify that Xia acted in self defence when stabbed two officials with a fruit knife which he had in his pocket while three officials were continuously beating him for selling barbecued meat without a licence.  The court did not allow their testimony and it based its verdict on the testimony given by the chengguan, as did a subsequent appeal. Mr. Xia’s wife, Zhang Jing, seen here carrying her husband’s ashes, documented her final meeting with her husband in a series of microblog postings that riveted the country.