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Ruling on teens highlights legal differences between China, US

The three suspects

A US court on January 5 sentenced three Chinese teenagers to 6 to 13 years in prison after they pleaded no contest on the charges of kidnapping and assault of a peer last March.

The news triggered a wave among Chinese netizens, most of whom expressed their support to the US court’s decision, despite the fact that these teenagers would spend their youth in jail.

“The problem of school violence which the Chinese were not able to solve finally got handled by Americans.” This was the most typical comment on the Internet.

Although local governments and lawmakers resolved to prevent school violence in the past two years, the number of cases has been rising, ending up with controversial measures.

Lighter punishment in China

The three Chinese defendants, Yunyao "Helen" Zhai, Yuhan "Coco" Yang and Xinlei "John" Zhang, who are all now 19 years old, were charged with torture, kidnapping and assault. While the three pleaded no contest to charges of kidnapping and assault, the court agreed to drop the torture charge under an agreement. Zhai was sentenced to 13 years in prison, Yang to 10 and Zhang to six.

What if the prosecution took place in China? “The punishment might have been lighter,” said Zou Jiaming, the attorney of Li Jiaming who killed his girlfriend in 2002 in Canada.

In China, “physical abuse” is the most important basis for judging a school bullying case, while the conviction of insult must involve sexual offense.

The victim, Yiran "Camellia" Liu, in this case was stripped naked, which, however, did not amount to sexual offense. And this would not be treated as a crime of insult in China, according to Zou.

The possible charge on the three suspects would be that of assault, Zou said. According to Chinese law, a suspect who causes physical injury to others will be sentenced to prison for at most three years, and the punishment will be higher if it involves insult. The highest sentence for assault is death penalty, but only when the violence has triggered a “severe consequence”, Zou said.

The charge of insult on the three students might be dropped because “the lighter damage to the victim would be assimilated by the heavier damage,” the attorney said.

In this case, cutting off the hair and making the victim eat it, and burning the victim’s nipple might be considered “lighter” compared with the act of assault under Chinese law, according to Zou.

The different ways of handling such a case in the US and China reflect the differences between the legal systems of the two countries, Zou said.

Accusations of insult and assault can be found in a case in May 11, 2015 when a photo of a female student from East China’s Lianyungang Radio and Television University being naked and assaulted was posted on China’s social media. The five suspects, at similar ages to the victim, were sentenced to six months to six years and a half in prison, while the main criminal was convicted of “assault” and “insult”.

“There have been few cases of sentencing of school bullies across the whole nation,” said Li Baoqun, the chief judge of the case.

While that was the severest punishment among the cases of school violence in recent years in China, not all suspects were charged with criminal liabilities in other cases, according to an official report. There were in total 40 cases of school bullying from January to May last year, among which six incidents (16.7%) had caused death, according to However, only in five other cases of attack and taking naked photos, criminal charges were made.  

In a case last February in southwestern Yunnan province, a student was blackmailed and forced to drink urine, but no criminal charges were made against the suspects.

With respect to such cases, the Chinese law is vague, but it’s not a problem of law enforcement, Zou said.

“The law should not only protect the individual from being damaged physically, but also protect his or her dignity and values,” the lawyer said. “This case shows that China still has a long way to go to optimize its legal system.”


(This article is translated and edited by Chunmei.)

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