This frame grab taken from Chinese television CCTV on March 1, 2013 shows convicted murderer Yi Lai being transferred for execution. The transferring of four convicted murderers from was shown on live television. (CCTV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In an unusual action that quickly sparked debate online, Chinese authorities showed a live broadcast Friday of four foreign drug smugglers in their last hours before execution for killing 13 fishermen.

A shocking form of reality TV for China, the program on state-run television featured all the staples of modern current events coverage — experts, pundits, instant analysis. It cut away as the convicted men were being led from their cells, hands tied with rope, toward their lethal injections.

The reaction was immediate and polarized, with many online questioning the ethics of the broadcast, as well as China’s use of the death penalty. The number of annual executions in China is considered a state secret, but Amnesty International estimates that it could be thousands, which would be more than the rest of the world combined.

Some legal experts questioned whether the broadcast violated rules against parading prisoners before their executions. Others simply said it was inhumane.

One magazine columnist named Lian Peng criticized the program as ghoulish propaganda, saying on China’s Twitter-like microblogs, “Even if it’s just the preparation before execution, the exclusive interviews before dying, the interpretation of experts and making the public watch, all of it humiliated people’s dignity without a doubt.”

The four executed were convicted of killing 13 Chinese fishermen on the Mekong River in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Their alleged ringleader was a Burmese man. Two others were Thai and Laotian, and one’s nationality was unknown.

Many Chinese comments online also heaped scorn on the four men for the killings.

One blogger with the handle “A Good Citizen of Big Country” argued such executions don’t happen enough: “Many so-called elites call for abolishing the death penalty, saying it’s against human rights. Human rights should be the right to survive first of all. Canceling the death penalty will cause people to hurt others more fearlessly.”

Violence against Chinese working overseas has become a growing topic in recent years, with large populations in sometimes dangerous hot spots in Africa and the Middle East, and the government has tried to assure its citizens of protection.

“That China chooses to send the message that attacks on its citizens abroad will not go unpunished in this way is disturbing,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.