You’ve probably already heard about the horrible double-homicide that killed two Chinese USC students last week. It’s a bit of an old story now, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s worth examining the response to it. For the sake of brevity, here’s a very condensed version of what happened:
- The AP initially reported that the two students were in a $60,000 BMW when they were shot.
- The Chinese internet explodes with condemnations and assertions that they deserved to be murdered, that their parents were probably corrupt officials anyway, etc.
- Some net users point out that the car they were in was used, and while it can cost as much as $60,000 new, this particular model was from 2003 and had been purchased used for about $10,000. The AP updates its story.
- The AP reporter (Greg Risling) is criticized, some of his private correspondance is published online, etc.
Now, there are a bunch of distracting side issues here. Some people feel Risling shouldn’t have even mentioned the make of the car the victims were in in the first place. Then there’s the highly questionable ethics of some of Rislings critics, including a Columbia Journalism School student named Angela Bao who published private correspondance with Risling despite Risling’s express statement in his first email that she did not have permission to do so.
But in the larger picture, that should all be irrelevant. What Risling’s critics are actually upset about — and rightfully so — is that the family of these victims is being criticized and cursed unfairly. Some blame Risling’s article for implicitly suggesting victims were richer than they probably are, and thus inspiring this public backlash against their families. But that is entirely missing the point. Would it be acceptable to curse the families of the murder victims if they really had been wealthy? Obviously not. The AP certainly committed a regrettable error in initially publishing the $60,000 number ((although it later ran a follow-up, also by Risling, that corrects the error)), but the problem here is not with the AP, it’s with the Chinese people who believe rich people deserve to be murdered.
That people with money should be murdered is, of course, a completely indefensible position, but it’s not too difficult to understand. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has lived in China any time over the past few years is surprised at all by the fact that many people have this response. Money and corruption have become inexorably linked in the minds of many here, and luxury cars have become an especially potent symbol of oppression because they seem to keep running over poor people.
China’s wealthy are moving abroad in droves, and I have a feeling it’s not all about food safety and better education systems. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for China’s wealthy, many of whom really are involved in corruption, but when the court of public opinion is suggesting that owning a $60,000 car is enough to justify the murder of your children, well, why stay in that environment when you don’t have to?
But the problem isn’t the money or the nice cars, or even the fact that the nice cars seem to keep running over children. The problem is justice. The problem is that when a tragedy like the one I just linked occurs, the public has no faith whatsoever that justice will be served. And why should they when it often isn’t? If a case becomes high-profile enough (like the infamous “Li Gang” incident) the courts may be pressured into setting down some actual jail time, but everyone knows that if you have enough money or the right connections, almost anyone’s life is for sale. Or, to put it another way: if Bo Xilai’s wife felt sure she would get away with murdering a wealthy citizen of the United Kingdom (allegedly) ((Frankly, she probably could have gotten away with it if her husband wasn’t such a thorn in the side of Zhongnanhai)), what chance does the poor victim of a hit-and-run traffic accident have for justice?
The thirst for justice is evident as misdirected anger in the initial public response to the USC shootings, and it’s also evident in the reaction to this recent case in which a Chinese student in the US raped a landlord, and following his arrest, his parents attempted to bribe the victim to get her to reverse her testimony. The parents were, of course, arrested, and if you read through the comments, you will see that the online response to this news is almost unbridled joy and schadenfreude. There is a huge appetite for “corrupt people get their just desserts” stories because there are so few of them here.
In the wake of the USC case, if you’re criticizing the AP or the victim’s families, you’re missing the forest for the trees. The real problem in America is that there was a homicide, and it needs to be solved so the killer can be taken off the streets for good. The real problem in China is that the widening income gap goes down extra hard when it’s taken with the knowledge that the wealthy have more rights than you do. In fact, with enough money, they probably have the right to kill you.
That’s a problem that has to be solved if China is to avoid outbursts of class warfare, and I’m not talking about Fox News’s red herrings, I’m talking about actual violence. In the past few years there have already been a few hit-and-run cases that resulted in mass incidents a sort. Recall, for example, the 2010 incident in which a man stuck a pedestrian and then got out of the car and beat him, shouting, “I’ve got money, I’d rather just beat you to death and pay the compensation!” Soon enough, he found himself locked in his car, surrounded by a mob of angry people.
In that particular case, he got lucky — he was rescued by police, and he hadn’t actually beaten his victim to death. But you’ve got to wonder, what might have happened if the victim had died on the scene before police arrived? What if the victim had been a child? If this were to happen tomorrow and the police were a little slower to arrive?
If people aren’t confident that justice will be served by the system, it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to take it into their own hands on the street.