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from Red Prosecutor
Xiao Rundcrantz
Translated and introduced by Marlaine Delargy

This article appeared in the 2006:2 issue.

Xiao RundcrantzThis remarkable book tells the true story of Xiao Rundcrantz’ path from a poverty-stricken childhood through her work as a highly successful and well-respected prosecutor in China until she moved to Sweden in 1998. She began her training in 1984, at the age of just 18, and was soon leading investigations herself. The China Xiao served was a hard, uncompromising country, with the death penalty the only outcome for those convicted of murder. Much of her work involved rape and indecency cases, and the book provides a fascinating and terrifying insight into the status of women in China, and into Xiao’s constant struggle to maintain her own integrity while carrying out her duties. It is difficult to grasp that the harrowing scenes she shares with the reader took place within the last two decades; this extract forms the prologue of the book, and it is worth remembering that Xiao was just 21 at the time.


We were to carry out his death sentence on New Year’s Eve 1988 – a bitterly cold, grey day.

The announcement of the execution had been posted on public notice boards all over the province some time ago. I should imagine a lot of people will turn up to watch, I thought as I was putting on my prosecutor’s uniform. I glanced in the mirror, adjusted my cap, straightened up and smoothed down my uniform. Today I was to supervise the implementation of a death sentence for the first time, at the age of twenty-one. I had in fact recommended that the condemned man, Yan, should be prosecuted, but I didn’t believe he deserved to be executed.

I got into the car. Prosecutor Zhou and Chief Prosecutor Dan were already there. A number of other cars were carrying two vice chief prosecutors, local party chairman Wu, and a large number of judges and police officers. They were all in uniform and all armed with pistols.

Motorbikes with sidecars and police cars with wailing sirens led the way. These were followed by two open topped trucks, each carrying two condemned men, standing with shackles on their hands and feet. Their heads had been shaved, and around their necks hung white wooden signs which said “Yan the murderer”, “Dong Hua the rapist” and so on. Above each name a blood red cross had been painted. Beside each man stood two soldiers in their twenties, an automatic rifle in their hands. Their faces were serious, their bodies as stiff as a poker. They looked like robots.

Our car followed the trucks, and through the windscreen I could see Yan staring straight ahead, his face expressionless and his eyes empty.

What is he thinking about? I wondered.

During the course of the investigation he had shown regret, admitted his crime, and hoped to be allowed to live; I had promised him this would happen. He didn’t want his two children, who had already lost their mother, to lose their father as well. But today he was to return to the earth that bore him, to atone for his guilt in blood.

The cortege proceeded slowly, shaking and rattling. The road was lined with curious, staring crowds. Men and women, children and old people pointed at the condemned men, enthusiastically exchanging comments on what they saw. After half an hour the truck ahead of us suddenly came to a halt. Through the windscreen I could see the man beside Yan fighting with the soldiers. His hands were chained, but he was swinging his shoulders as if he were trying to knock the soldiers to the ground. When the two soldiers grabbed his arms, he suddenly spat in the face of one of them. The young soldier had doubtless never encountered such a desperate individual. He was furious, and lifted his rifle, aiming at the man’s forehead.

Dan ordered me to get out of the car immediately and sort the situation out.

I ran over to the soldier and said in a firm voice: “Lower your weapon!”

But he kept the rifle aimed at the prisoner’s head, and spat: “This one’s a bloody idiot!”

In an authoritative tone I ordered him to lower his rifle, and asked the prisoner what was going on.

“I was just complaining that if I’m going to be shot, you could just as well have done it at the prison,” he replied. “What’s the point of driving round for hours just to carry out the sentence bloody miles away?”

The fear of death was a difficult thing for the condemned man. Among the crowd watching his execution would be schoolmates, friends, close family and other relatives. They would all see him with their own eyes, collapsing before the barrel of a gun. Humiliation and rage made him hate the local authorities who were using his execution to deter others from committing crimes. The fear and anxiety of the months spent waiting for the sentence had suddenly exploded.

When I had heard his explanation, I attempted to calm him down. “There’s nothing we can do to change things now, so you might as well all calm down. There’s no point in fighting.”

Yan had been watching in silence the whole time. He was shivering with cold. “Why aren’t you wearing more clothes?” I asked him.

“I’m not cold,” he replied, his lips trembling in the chill wind. “This morning I gave my sweater and my long pants to the prison guard, who promised to send them on to my father. He can’t afford new clothes. It would be a waste to ruin the sweater with blood and a bullet hole.”

I stood there in silence for a moment, then walked dispiritedly back to the car.

The cortege drove to Shutang, where the place of execution was already full of people, the air humming with chatter. Just as we were about to drive in, I heard screams and sobbing. It was Yan’s two children. They could see their father chained on the truck, and were desperately trying to tear themselves away from Ma Pin, Yan’s sister-in-law, to run to him, but she was holding their hands tightly. The children hadn’t seen their father for a long time; they were fighting, kicking and screaming hysterically: “Daddy, Daddy! We want to go to Daddy!” Ma Pin didn’t dare look at Yan. Tears were pouring down her cheeks.

The soldiers were holding on to Yan’s arms firmly. All he could do was push his body forwards, crane his neck and call the children’s names. Tears were coursing down his cheeks. When the children saw their father crying, they became even more agitated and fought even harder to get to him.

I looked enquiringly at Dan. He nodded. I ran over to the truck and told the driver to stop. Then I instructed the two soldiers holding Yan to allow him to climb down from the truck in order to say a few final words to his children.

Once on the ground he was ordered to kneel. They released the shackles on his hands, but left those on his feet. I went over to the entrance of the place of execution and told Ma Pin to let the children go.

The four-year-old boy flung his arms around his father’s neck and said: “I’ve missed you such a lot.” The six-year-old girl dried the tears on her father’s cheeks with her fingers and managed to say: “We’re doing exactly what Auntie tells us to do. She said you were going to buy us sweeties. Have you got them?”

Yan was on his knees, one arm around each child. The words caught in his throat, and it was a while before he managed to collect himself and stop sobbing. His daughter said: “Auntie said you were going to be in a film today. She said it’s a really sad film, and you cry a lot. You’re just like a real actor.”

Yan kissed his daughter’s face several times and said encouragingly to her: “You must do exactly what Auntie says. Look after your little brother, and whatever happens, the two of you must stick together.”

“Are you going away?” asked his daughter.

“Daddy’s going to a place far, far away from here, and I’m going to meet Mummy there.”

“I want to come! I want to see Mummy too!” said the girl, smiling.

“I want to come too!” shouted the son happily. “You’ll be home tonight, Daddy, won’t you? I don’t want to live with Auntie, I want to live with you.”

Yan’s tears were flowing uncontrollably, and he was unable to speak. He held the children close, as if he wanted to feel the warmth of their bodies one last time. I turned away so that I didn’t have to see. The tears were pricking, but I didn’t dare let them come. I had to control myself. My position did not permit me to weep whenever I felt like it. People would say I was not conducting myself as a prosecutor should, that I was childish and cowardly. I said to Ma Pin: “Take the children home. Don’t let them watch the execution.”

She wiped her tear-filled eyes and nodded.

I could hear vicious comments from the noisy crowd: “Who would have thought a man who didn’t open his mouth for days on end would kill his own wife. It’s always the quiet ones...”

“You get to know people on the outside, but not what’s in their heart. In future we’d better be careful who we break bread with,” someone else replied.

It was time to lead Yan to the place of execution. He refused to let go. The two soldiers tore the children away from him and pushed him back up on to the truck. He turned his head, refusing to let the children out of his sight. Ma Pin stumbled away, dragging the screaming, struggling children with her, and they gradually disappeared from his view. He began to sob loudly; it was heartrending.

The cars drove to the centre of the place of execution, an ordinary, simple sports ground. It was packed with people all the way round, people who had travelled many miles to see the show. On a podium sat the political officials. The four condemned men were taken down from the trucks and placed a few metres away, their heads bowed. The mass meeting where the prisoner’s sentences were proclaimed could begin. The governor stated the necessity of fighting crime with vigour in order to maintain order in society. He spoke for half an hour. Then, through crackling loudspeakers, the leader of the high court listed the dangerous crimes the condemned men had committed. Finally, he declaimed in a serious tone: “The people give vent to their anger. We censure the masses and deter the criminals. By executing one, we warn a hundred. That is why we are carrying out these death sentences.”

The soldiers ordered the prisoners to their knees. Their hands were still shackled behind their backs, their feet in chains. A soldier stood behind each of them, holding a rifle with the bayonet pointing at the men’s backs, just where the heart is. The condemned men were not permitted to lean forward, but had to sit with their backs straight in order to make it easier to aim at the heart. I was standing behind the soldier responsible for Yan. Beside me stood Prosecutor Zhou and the police doctor, laughing and chatting with each other.

“It is time!” shouted the loudspeakers.

There was a muffled thud as the bullet entered Yan’s back. His body slumped forwards as if he had been struck by lightning, and collapsed on the ground.

I had been prepared for what was to happen, but was still terrified by the muffled shot. My heart was pounding violently. Zhou and I, along with a soldier and the police doctor, were standing just a few metres away from Yan, and we could see his body twitching. We were waiting for him to die. One side of his face was against the ground, the other side was turned upwards. Both eyes were closed, and his face was ashen. After a moment blood began to pour out of his chest and back, staining the coarse, faded blue jacket red. His feet were kicking and his whole body jerked in a spasm. After a moment’s stillness, his feet moved a little more, pushing his body forwards. I was forced to witness his death struggle with my eyes open. It was my duty.

It made me think of the day every summer when my father slaughtered a cockerel. He would seize hold of the cock’s comb with one hand, twisting the head backwards. With the other hand he would yank out a few feathers from the throat. Then he would slash twice at the cockerel’s throat with a kitchen knife, quickly and precisely, so that the blood spurted out. He held on to the head and the feet as the body emptied of blood. Then he would twist the head and tuck it under one wing, dropping the bird on the ground and waiting until it gave up the ghost. Although the cockerel had no blood left, it still wasn’t dead. Its legs would kick out from time to time, moving it forwards just like Yan.

Finally, Yan lay there completely motionless.

“That’s it, I should think,” said the police doctor. “I think he’s given up his spirit.” He went up to Yan’s body and turned it over. Earth and gravel were sticking to his lips. The doctor placed his hand in front of Yan’s nose, then felt for a pulse in his neck. He stood up and said: “He’s dead.”

“You must go up to him, Xiao,” Zhou said firmly. “Feel his neck to see if there’s a pulse. Then lift up the eyelids and look if the pupils are dilated. If that’s the case, then he’s dead. Otherwise, it means the soldier has not aimed correctly, but has missed the heart. Then he will have to shoot again, and we will have to check again.”

I could feel the blood rising in my body and my face burning. I could hardly move my feet, but I took a deep breath and did my best to calm myself. I said to Zhou: “Perhaps you could help me to examine the body this time. I’ll watch and learn how things are done, then I’ll know what to do myself next time.”

He went over, and I followed. We crouched down beside the body. Yan’s blood was dark red and coagulated, thicker than an animal’s blood. The smell of the blood was different, more nauseating than the chickens’ and pigs’ blood you could smell when they were being slaughtered at the market. First of all Zhou felt for the pulse in Yan’s neck, and murmured: “His body is still warm. It hasn’t completely cooled yet.” Then he used his thumb and index finger to open Yan’s eyelid so that the white of his eye was visible. Suddenly we heard Yan’s voice wheezing: “I’m not dead yet, it hurts, I feel as if my whole body is splitting apart. Give me another bullet and let me die quickly.”

The “corpse” had spoken! His agonized words terrified the life out of me. I had to clamp my mouth tight shut to avoid screaming out loud. My heart was in my mouth. Suddenly his eyes were half open, but only the whites were visible. I screwed my eyes shut in order to avoid seeing Yan’s distorted face. His soul didn’t want to let go. He must be cursing me, because I hadn’t kept my promise. He would torture me forever. Cold sweat was pouring off me. I was paralysed with fear.

Zhou exhorted me in a stern voice: “Go and stand behind the soldier, Xiao!”

I woke up, stood up quickly and stumbled away.

Zhou came striding after me and ordered one of the soldiers standing a little way off: “He isn’t dead yet. Shoot again at once.”

The soldier went over to Yan and shot him again in the throat. We waited a minute or two, then Zhou told me to go and check again. My heart contracted. My legs almost gave way. I felt as if the sky had fallen in on me, my throat was constricted and I could hardly breathe. I shook my head instinctively and said: “I’m not doing it. I can’t. I want to go home.”

Zhou shook his head, smiled indulgently and went over to Yan to check that he’d died.

He then informed the relatives that they should come forward to the place of execution to take charge of the body. They were also told they were not permitted to organize any kind of memorial service or funeral. All those who are executed must be committed to the earth without ceremony.

I am not entirely sure of how the day ended, or how I got back to the prosecutors’ office. My brain was empty, and everything was like a confused dream. On the way back, my colleagues were sitting in the car joking about Yan. “He was a tough devil, right enough. One bullet wasn’t enough for him, he even asked for another one himself.” They all laughed at how cowardly I had been: “Today our little girl has seen what it’s like out there in the real world. No doubt you’ll sleep well tonight! Ha, ha, ha...”

Dan taught me how I should deal with the challenges I would meet during the rest of my career. “You have to train more to make your psyche strong. As you go on you will meet more and more difficult tasks. You must be prepared.”

The meat we were given for dinner in the canteen made me think of Yan’s blood, and I couldn’t suppress the feeling of nausea. I raised my chopsticks, but couldn’t make myself eat anything. I went to a shop, bought a small bottle of vodka and knocked it back to give me courage. But far into the night I could see the expression on Yan’s dying face even more clearly before my eyes.

Our room was at the far end of the corridor, a good twenty metres from the communal toilet. As usual, I wanted to go to the toilet before I went to sleep. The long corridor was pitch black. I switched on the one feeble light and took a few steps, but didn’t dare go any further. I went back to the bedroom and asked my room mates Lee and Bo: “Will you come with me?”

They got out of bed and came along to the toilet with me, one on each side. When we got there, I asked if they would come in with me. “Okay,” replied Bo. On the toilet ceiling hung a 15-watt bulb, swaying in the draught from the broken window and making the light flicker. “Get a move on. It’s cold,” said Lee impatiently.

During the night I dreamed that Yan’s wife was walking beside me. She had no face, her hair was long and tousled, and she was making strange noises. Yan was on his knees at my feet. His arms were abnormally long, and he was reaching up to my face. All his fingernails were extremely sharp and pointed, and he seemed to want to stab them into my eyes. I moved backwards, but couldn’t get away. Every time I took a step back, he took a step forwards. From his throat came hoarse, hollow sounds with an irresistible power: “Give them back! Give me back my children, executioner!” I was terrified and wanted to scream out loud, but something was pressing on my chest and preventing me. I struggled to scream, and suddenly I awoke from the dream, drenched in sweat.

I pulled at the light cord hanging by my bed. The light woke Bo and Lee, and they wondered sleepily what time it was. “I had a nightmare and I was frightened of the dark, so I put the light on,” I answered tiredly.

They turned over, groaned a little and soon went back to sleep. I tossed and turned, but couldn’t fall asleep again. It seemed as if the darkness outside my window would never disappear. I waited anxiously for the first light of dawn.