By the ABC News Beijing Bureau
China's state-run broadcaster, CCTV, made a grisly announcement this week. It planned to live broadcast the execution of a Burmese drug lord and three of his henchmen for massacring13 Chinese crewmen aboard a ship on the Mekong River.
The murders had enraged China and the broadcast was initially greeted enthusiastically. The two hour show which aired today had all the elements of a sweeps week production, but as the program neared its close, the station abruptly changed plans and did not show the execution.
CCTV did not say why it altered its programming, but while the show was running China News Week started a poll on Weibo, China's Twitter. It asked whether people thought the live broadcast was right or wrong. Initially the majority of people supported it. But as the program began that balance shifted until the firm majority were against CCTV's decision. Within two hours of the execution, the poll was no longer accessible.
Chinese media identified the executed men as Naw Kham, a notorious drug lord who operated in the Golden Triangle area, along with Hsang Kham, Yi Lai and Zha Xika.
In October 2011 the group ambushed a Chinese cargo ship and killed 13 crew members. Kham was known to be the leader of the group. There was widespread fury in China and Chinese authorities launched a manhunt for his capture.
The South China Morning Post reported the Chinese government even considered sending an attack drone into Myanmar air space to locate Kham.
This week, CCTV announced the two-hour special that would feature live reports from the location where the men would be killed by lethal injection in Kumming, Yunnan Province. Initial reaction in China to the announcement was mixed.
The show began at 1:30 p.m. A CCTV anchor, the police chief from Yunnan Province and a professor from Renmin University discussed the crime at length.
Viewers saw each man brought out of prison escorted by four armed guards. They were met with a large number of jostling photographers and cameramen from national media organizations. Their handcuffs were removed and their hands were bound behind them with rope. Throughout the broadcast CCTV interspersed the live coverage with pre-produced documentary-like profiles of each man.
As Melissa Chan, formerly a Beijing-based reporter for Al Jazeera noted, at one point a CCTV reporter asked the prisoner, "Do you miss your kids? Did you think about the kids of the man you killed?"When CCTV interviewed Kham as he was given his last meal, the reporter asked whether he had a final message for his family.
Part of the narration noted that each man looked much healthier than they had when arrested. This was attributed to the good conditions they were given in prison. There was also a segment going back over the Mekong River massacre in detail.
When Kham came out to face the media and have his handcuffs removed, the CCTV anchor noted that he looked peaceful and even gave a small smile as his arms were bound. When the fourth and final prisoner was escorted out, the CCTV anchor informed viewers that he had killed the majority of Chinese crew members. "His hands have all the blood on them," he said.
The broadcast was a hot topic online and sparked much debate over both the death penalty and CCTV's decision to air the execution. @mood-walking wrote, "They have finally been paid back. Now the victims can rest in peace. To the people who think the death penalty is cruel, I wish you have a new Naw Kham follow you for every generation."
But @Hanyouyi had a different take, "Naw Kham should be executed no doubt. But CCTV's live broadcast of the execution is a live parade on TV and the internet, this is not showing justice, this is showing power over flesh."
For whatever reason, CCTV did not broadcast the actual execution. The last viewers saw of the prisoners was them being loaded on to separate vehicles headed for the site of the execution.