A young Chinese woman killed in Arizona was driving a Mercedes. That's enough for some web users to celebrate her passing.
On the afternoon of Jan. 16 in Tempe, Arizona, a Mercedes and another car collided in a minor fender bender. A bout of road rage ensued. Holly Davis, 32, pulled out a gun and shot the driver of the Mercedes, a 19-year-old Arizona State University (ASU) student from China named Jiang Yue. Jiang died shortly thereafter, while her boyfriend, a passenger in the car, sustained minor injuries.
The young woman’s tragic death made headlines not only in the United States but also in China, where web users gathered to mourn in online spaces including Weibo, a microblogging platform. But in addition to expressing condolences and blaming U.S. gun laws for the death – the latter a common reaction in China to gun violence Stateside — some web users have fixated on the victim’s ownership of a luxury car, interpreting Jiang’s death as another example of Chinese corruption, rather than as a simple tragedy.
“A 19 year old girl, studying in the United States, driving a Mercedes; where did all that money come from?” asked one Weibo user in response to the news. “I wonder which fancy official it was whose child or grandchild has just died,” wondered a woman in Shijiazhuang. Another netizen speculated that Jiang’s car must have cost a near fortune. Others took shots at the fact that she had a boyfriend; though dating is common in China, some associate even the appearance of liberal sexual values with the decadence of young Chinese born to privilege. “A prostitute from a rich family,” wrote another. “One dead means one less.”
But many felt the snark deeply inappropriate, eliciting widespread indignation online. “If she had the ability and her family supported her what’s wrong with studying abroad?” went the most up-voted comment to a viral Weibo post from state media broadcaster China Central Television announcing the ASU student’s death. (Chinese studying in the United States now number over 304,000; some, but by no means all, hail from wealthy families.) “In America it’s hard without a car. Parents love their children dearly; what’s wrong with buying a car for their kid?” On ubiquitous Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat, one widely read article lambasted those using Jiang’s death to express anger at corruption and inequality. The article’s title: “I’m sorry, we cannot accept how you are reporting and commenting on the shooting of the Chinese female exchange student and smearing the victim.” It accused Chinese media outlets of dwelling on Jiang’s Mercedes, and included evidence of comments calling the late Jiang “Mercedes girl.”
It’s not the first time that an accident involving a luxury car has sparked a national debate. In April 2012, a young Chinese couple was shot and killed while driving a BMW near the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles. At the time, some Chinese netizens derided the deceased as “rich kids” and “playboys,” prompting several Chinese media outlets including state news agency Xinhua to decry such name-calling. A series of fatal car crashes involving Ferraris have also resulted in similar online derision. In March 2012, the son of high-ranking Chinese official Ling Jihua perished in a single-car crash, and one of two partially undressed female companions in the black Ferrari with him later died. Online speculation spiked, with many criticizing what they viewed as the epitome of Chinese official corruption and decadence, and censors blocked the word “Ferrari” on Weibo, where sensitive speech is tightly controlled.
Jiang’s life and death tap into Chinese social tensions that have been brewing in the swiftly developing country for years. The term chou fu, or “hating the rich,” has become a common catch phrase in recent years as economic inequality has risen swiftly, exacerbated by the endemic corruption that has plagued the nation for decades. Some lower or middle class Chinese feel that they have been shut out of opportunity by those wealthier and better connected, and salacious news involving luxury cars, luxury education, or extramarital relationships can all prompt chou fu. Jiang, with her potentially expensive U.S. education, her Mercedes, and her boyfriend, has become the unfortunate target of this antagonism.
But while Chinese web users debate the moral character of a young woman they never met, Jiang’s friends and loved ones are left grieving. Her parents flew to Tempe, where local police public information officer Michael Pooley described them “emotional.”
“She was a completely innocent bystander,” Pooley told People magazine. “That’s what was so hard about this … She had such a bright future.”