Three Chinese bullies will serve U.S. jail time – and China's Internet is rejoicing.
- By Ning HuiNing Hui, or Lulu Hui, is a U.K.-based reporter on Chinese art and public policy. She tweets from @ninghuilulu
While U.S. authorities are busy rolling back penalties for young criminals, Chinese web users are clamoring for harsher treatment in their own borders. On Jan. 25, President Obama banned the holding of juveniles in solitary confinement in the United States, declaring the practice could lead to “devastating” consequences. But in China, web users are lauding a recent U.S. decision to sentence three young Chinese bullies to some serious prison time.
On Jan. 7, three Chinese defendants – Zhai Yunyao, Yang Yuhan, and Zhang Xinlei, all now 19 years old – agreed with prosecutors to accept prison sentences for the March 2015 assault and kidnapping of Liu Yiran, who was then 18, while attending high school in San Gabriel Valley. Prosecutors have alleged that while off campus, the defendants brought Liu to a park called Rowland Heights, then stripped her, slapped her, burned her with cigarettes, and kicked her. Sentences will range from six to 13 years in prison. After serving their time, the three will be expelled from the United States.
That’s just fine with many in China. On Jan 23, Xinhua, China’s state news agency, talked to the father of Zhang Xinlei. In the interview, Mr. Zhang, who did not give his first name, said he lacked knowledge of the United States when the family decided to send his son to study in California three and half years prior. The elder Zhang stressed that he didn’t understand the legal and cultural differences between the two countries, insisting that his knowledge of the U.S. was “like a sheet of blank paper.” Zhang also described his son as isolated, living with a host family that “only provided room and board” and separated by a language barrier. (Zhang added his son’s school was “80 or 90 percent” overseas Chinese.)
Xinhua’s widely read article take focused on the difficulties for so-called parachute kids, Chinese teenagers who live and study in the United States while their parents remain in China. In the article, the elder Zhang comes across somewhat sympathetically, agreeing that his son should be punished for breaking the law and insisting he’d hoped his child would learn to “eat bitterness” while living abroad. But online commenters have offered a different perspective, interpreting Zhang’s focus on legal and cultural differences as an implication that his son’s behavior would have been acceptable in China.
“The father is implying that he could have gotten his son off in China,” wrote one web user reacting to the news. “It is a classic rich but cruel family.” Another web user wrote, “What the father really means is that he didn’t know his kid could go to jail for bullying classmates in the States and he didn’t know that money can’t ‘solve’ illegal activity there. If he had known,” the comment concluded, Zhang would have stayed in China “where he could attack whoever he wants.” The most popular comment read, “Thank you, United States, for educating these scumbags that China can’t handle.” Many wondered at the unusually pro-U.S. tone of comments, borne mostly from frustration at China’s own flagging approach to the bullying problem.
In China, campus violence has become more visible, making the lack of accountability to police or judicial authorities more glaring. Last year witnessed a wave of high-profile bullying cases in Chinese media: on May 11, four teenage girls stripped another girl naked and attacked her in a hotel room in Jiangsu Province, then uploaded the pictures to social media. On May 15, eight high school girls, also in Shandong, attacked a classmate; they recorded the assault and uploaded the evidence to the Internet. On June 10, a high school boy was attacked by other students and forced to eat excrement from a toilet in Jiangsu Province; the attackers recorded the whole process and sent to the boy’s parents and other students.
But authorities have often seemed less than fully invested in solving and punishing these cases. The eight high school girls from Shandong faced no legal consequences, despite having shared their bullying on social media. Their school eventually decided that no police involvement was necessary and reportedly concluded the case by asking the parents to apologize to the bullied girl and her family, and to post a letter of apology online.
Zhang Jiehai, a psychological professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (no relation to the accused Zhang Xinlei), complained in a September 2015 op-ed on BBC Chinese that China lacks a child protection system at the national level. “Except for the most severe cases, which may involve police, bullying victims can only seek help from family,” he wrote. Many cases of bullying in China are settled among parents and schools, sometimes involving hush money paid to the bullied family. The bullies are seldom punished by law enforcement.
Bullying happens everywhere, to be sure, but the Chinese public believes it’s become too easy for rich families in China to spare their children the consequences. The latest case, and the clumsy efforts of one defendant’s father to intervene, fits all too perfectly with the negative stereotypes of rich and powerful families in China, whose children are often associated with a willingness to run roughshod over rules and norms that apply to everyone else. Even during the hearings of the Rowland Heights Park case, one of the fathers of the three defendants tries to pay off a witness, according to the state-run China Daily; he was arrested for bribery.
“The United States is bad at many things, but it is good at punishing the bad guys,” wrote one web user. “When it comes to violence on campus and juvenile crime, our country doesn’t manage it, doesn’t care about it, and doesn’t punish it. If we could be more like the U.S. in this way, our country would close the gap with America by one more step.”