Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Ethan Couch

China’s Ethan Couch

On June 15, a drunk 16-year-old Texan named Ethan Couch crashed his Ford F-150 into four people, killing them. It looked like a case ripe for harsh penalties; instead, Couch avoided jail time, getting only 10 years’ probation. At his trial, a psychologist called by the defense testified that Couch’s spoiled upbringing meant he could not be responsible for his actions, a condition the witness called "affluenza." News of the sentencing on Tuesday, Dec. 10, has caught fire in the United States, and the term "affluenza" has become a touchstone for U.S. citizens outraged by what they view as wealth’s triumph over justice. But the problem of privilege is not unique: In fact, the Couch incident is eerily reminiscent of an earlier accident that shocked China. 

In Oct. 2010, in a large city in China’s northeastern Hebei province, a 22-year-old named Li Qiming drove drunk and crashed into two pedestrians, killing one. Instead of stopping to help them, Li continued on his way to drop his girlfriend off at university. When students and security guards stopped him on his way back, Li said, "Go ahead and sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang," a senior police official in the district where the crash occurred. 

Like "affluenza," the phrase "My dad is Li Gang" went viral, triggering enormous backlash. Although Chinese authorities tried to censor coverage of the incident, which highlighted China’s socioeconomic inequality and official corruption, word nonetheless got out. "My dad is Li Gang" became one of the most popular Chinese web catchphrases of 2010, laced with dark humor.

Couch will likely spend his probation at an expensive rehab facility in California (although his family still faces $20 million in civil suits). But in China, where Communist authorities sometimes direct court rulings to quell public anger, Li was ultimately arrested and, in Jan. 2011, sentenced to six years in jail. That only occurred after months of citizen outrage, and it could have been harsher. But courts justified their leniency by citing Li’s cooperation and his family’s payment of around $84,000 to victims’ families. Li Gang also apologized on television. 

One user on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, noticed that Couch seemed to be faring better than Li, despite killing four to Li’s one. "Li Qiming, you crazy boy," he wrote, "you must have been born in the wrong place."