In the Middle of a Forest, Furiously Attacking Random Trees

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.

0 thoughts on “In the Middle of a Forest, Furiously Attacking Random Trees”

  1. Mr Custer, I honestly expected far better from you.

    If you are going to criticise the Chinese justice system (and by all means do so, there is plenty that deserves critique) for its lack of attention to basic rule-of-law, and if you are going to indict the ‘court of public opinion’ for assuming all rich people are guilty until proven innocent, then you have absolutely no business doing the exact same thing, assuming that Gu Kailai killed poor Mr Heywood, particularly when the trial itself seems so politically motivated.

    Mr Heywood’s family – wife, sister, mother – never suspected foul play when his death was reported (and it was they, not the Chongqing police, who requested his cremation). Mr Heywood’s entire family on his father’s side had a history of heart disease and early death, and if he had been drinking and under stress as was claimed, a death by natural causes would not have been out-of-the-question. It was the British government, not the Heywood family, who requested that the case be reopened on the suspicions of one highly-compromised local public official. And then there’s the fact that Chinese authorities have been preventing anyone from the foreign press from contacting Mr Heywood’s wife – nothing at all suspicious about that, no sir, move along, folks…

    I mean, come on. At least append an ‘allegedly’ up there, is that too much to ask?


  2. Nice post once again.

    As you say, AP should’ve gotten it right, and the copy editors should be more careful. It understandable that editors need to chop and condense for length etc, but it amazes me that they would do so in such a way that alters the original content and/or meaning, yet not realize it.

    That said, I have no problem with the inclusion of the car in the original story. If the preliminary motive is speculated to be car-jacking and/or robbery, the vehicle in question and its value are relevant. For instance, if they were driving a 1979 Pinto, that motive seems less plausible. And if they were driving a murdered-out Escalade, maybe it could be gang-related. When 2 people get gunned down in a car, it seems that car should at least be part of the story.

    As for our soon-to-be Columbia grad journalist, I wonder how her investigative journalism career will turn out. I wonder how many people will be keen to approach her as an unnamed source when she seems so deeply respectful towards requests for anonymity/privacy.

    But i agree with you. The moral of this story is how much anger percolates just beneath the surface among Chinese (netizens at least) when it comes to their disdain for corruption and abuses of power/position.

    I do agree with MFC that characterization of Bo’s wife’s activities should be prefaced with “allegedly” for now …at least until the CCP concocts….ummm, I mean, uncovers evidence of “the truth”. That, like “justice”, is a nebulous concept for the CCP.


  3. @ MF Cooper: You’re right, I shall add an “allegedly” there. However, I think you’re overstating it. As I understand it, China has not “denied access” to Heywood’s wife, she just doesn’t want to speak to the press at the moment (they couldn’t really deny access without putting her under house arrest and cutting off her internet and phone; if they had done that, it’d be all over the news). Yes, it was Heywood’s family who made the decision to cremate, but reportedly, that decision was made after Gu Kailai met with Heywood’s wife and urged her to do so. Then there’s the fact that Heywood’s close friends have told the press that Heywood said Gu was acting like an “unforgiving empress” and that he thought he was in some danger. Or that some inside accounts not connected with the Chinese media reports also confirm that Gu Kailai ordered Heywood’s murder (granted, these are sourced anonymously and could just be rumors).

    Bo’s takedown was certainly politically motivated, but I don’t think that means he or his family is actually clean, and I don’t think the Chinese government needed to trump up a murder charge against his wife to accomplish it. It just means that the Bo family was subject to scrutiny that most Chinese leaders’ families will never have to deal with.


  4. @ S.K. Cheung, I agree with you about the car and about Bao, I just didn’t want to get into it as this post was already too long. But I did leave some comments on that Beijing Cream article to the effect that providing information about the car seems entirely relevant to me, and that Ms. Bao’s grasp of journalistic ethics seems to be, er, loose.


  5. To Custer,
    I see that. And it seems as though some guy named Adam is busily attacking trees over there. Always amusing to see. I guess his beef seems to be that Mr. Risling did not follow standard operating procedure and utilize the “car-jacking column-inch template” that the Adam-ator likely prefers. I mean, he got it from Bing, so it must be authoritative.

    As for our budding journalist, there was some mention about expectation of privacy. I agree with you, it would be uncool simply as a human to publish someone’s email without their consent. But with regards to her journalistic ethics (or quite possibly lack thereof), we don’t have enough information to tell. We don’t know what pretext was offered in her original communication with Risling. If she portrayed herself as a random dude off the street, he shouldn’t have had the expectation of any journalistic ethics in play…in which case he was rather stupid to randomly spill his guts out, and Bao may not be much of a human in this instance but leaves her journalistic integrity unscathed. But if Bao enticed Risling to talk by noting that she was a Columbia journalism student, then this episode doesn’t reflect well upon her as a human or as a journalist.


  6. @ S.K. Cheung: No, if Bao failed to disclose that she was a journalist, that’s also a serious violation of journalistic ethics, since she obviously intended (and then actually did) to publish this correspondence. It doesn’t matter if Risling thought she was a journalist or not, and it doesn’t matter what the expectation of privacy might be when emailing some random citizen. Bao IS a journalist, and she is absolutely obligated to tell people that up front, unless there is some greater ethical reason for her being undercover (but there isn’t, in this case).

    Given that she is a journalist and that she did intend to report publicly on this, it really doesn’t matter what pretext she offered; there’s no pretext she COULD offer that would make this OK (from a journalistic standpoint).

    For those curious the SPJ’s guide of ethics is here: worth a read through, there are several sections of it that Bao’s actions violate.


  7. Good article, minor niggle –

    “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.”

    Splitting hairs, I know, but I think it’s good to distinguish between ‘rights’ and ‘powers’, at least when talking about the rule of law. A rich, well connected man in China may have the power to kill me and get away with it, but he has no legal right to do so under Chinese law. The problem is that the law lacks meaning.

    @Cooper – Given:

    – Apparent presence of motive, with Heywood reportedly claimed to be having an affair with Gu according to friends, people in the UK reporting seeing them co-habiting and acting in a very familiar manner.

    – Apparent prescence of opportunity, both to kill Heywood and cover up his death.

    – Location of death (a hotel room in a city where he lived with his family).

    – Dubious nature of death certificate (death by ‘over-drinking’ rather than heart attack).

    – Rumoured confession of preparation of cyanide.

    – Anonymous claims that Heywood was afraid.

    We may at least consider Heywood’s death as suspicious.


  8. @ Gil: Agreed. By “rights” there I meant “de facto rights”, not the rights actually granted by law (which are so frequently ignored that I generally feel it’s pointless to even discuss them).


  9. To Custer,
    agree that Bao is a journalist. What’s unclear to me is whether she approached Risling as a journalist, or simply as a concerned/interested individual. I don’t think a professional is obliged to operate in that capacity at all times. Though I would agree that one journalist contacting another regarding a news article should engender a strong presumption of professional interest most of the time. As for whether she had an a priori intent to publish the correspondence, had Risling’s response been satisfactory to her, I wonder if she still would have done so. In any event, just as a human, it is uncool to publish someone’s email without express consent, and even worse to do so despite an express denial of consent as occurred here.


  10. @James, I know Angela Bao personally and can attest that her English is pretty fucking phenomenal for a person who has lived in the U.S. for under a year. Columbia University School of Journalism has a lot of international students, and while they may lack native-level aptitude in English all the ones I know speak more than enough to contribute meaningfully to class discussions and to complete their assignments. I agree with all above that she exhibited highly questionable judgment on publishing the reporter’s e-mails, but on the question of her basic competence I can tell you that she’s got it.


  11. @ SK Cheung: Yeah, but regardless of how she approached him, she then publicized what he said like a journalist would. Even if she approached him as a non-journalist with no plans to publish anything, she ultimately DID publish it, and that’s unethical. If the end result is publication, the information that’s being published needs to have been obtained ethically — and that means disclosing that you’re a journalist.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean journalists need to tell everyone they speak to in their private lives that they’re journalists. But if I have a private conversation with you and then get pissed about it later and decide to write an article about it and quote you, that would be unethical. It doesn’t matter how Bao’s conversation with Risling started and whether or not she was acting as a journalist or a private citizen. The end result was that she published information she had obtained against the subject’s express instructions, information that was clearly marked as off the record. The fact that she might have received that information while she still considered the email exchange personal correspondence is totally irrelevant.


  12. “If the end result is publication, the information that’s being published needs to have been obtained ethically”

    “The fact that she might have received that information while she still considered the email exchange personal correspondence is totally irrelevant.”
    —also agreed. I think we both agree that she has failed as a human in this instance. I haven’t come to as strong a conclusion about her as a journalist as you have in this instance, though I am leaning that way.


  13. For an article that states that suggesting rich people should be killed is an entirely indefensible position, this one sure makes a lot of blanket assertions about rich Chinese people, which I consider to be equally as indefensible for an author who has pretensions of journalistic integrity. Your statement that in China people with money have significantly more rights than you do is quite frankly misleading, as it suggests that this is somehow unusual. Quite obviously, it is not, as evidenced by any number of court cases in the United States, which are often covered extensively in the news (just compare sentences for rich white celebrities vs poor minorities, and you’ll get the picture.

    If anyone should be pointing fingers and complaining about journalism, one should point to Americans and their nearly insatiable appetite for waxing philosophical about how horrible it is in China, and how America is a far better place. This pervades the entire nation, and it’s quite frankly sickeningly arrogant.

    Cheers to you.


  14. @ A. Nonymous (clever): This is a blog about China. You’re new — or pretending to be new — so I’ll say that once. But read the comments policy. I’m sure that in America they’re running over poor people in steamrollers, but here, what we’re talking about is China. You can either get with the program or get banned. Have a nice day.


  15. Comparisons…they’re everywhere,…or so it would seem based on China blogs. Comparisons of apples and oranges, no less.


  16. “If anyone should be pointing fingers and complaining about journalism, one should point to Americans and their nearly insatiable appetite for waxing philosophical about how horrible it is in China, and how America is a far better place. This pervades the entire nation, and it’s quite frankly sickeningly arrogant.”

    The thing is that, in as much as the average American is at all aware of China, they’re as much in awe of it as anything else. You wouldn’t know it from reading the average China blog thread, but China actually doesn’t get that much coverage in the press of most European and North American countries, and what press it does get is divided pretty fairly between positive economic/cultural coverage and largely negative coverage of the political scene.


  17. What is wrong with killing rich people?

    99% of them got where they were by corruption or unethical practices. Whether in China or the West.

    I would not advocate their outright murder.

    But hearing of their demise, or the demise of their children does give me a feeling of happiness, I must admit.


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