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Courting controversy

Another court ruling triggers an outcry

In recent years China has seen periodic outcries over unjust verdicts, prompting the central government to step in to investigate and sometimes correct faulty local rulings (for the cases of Deng Yujiao, Qoysiletu, Nie Shubin and Lei Yang cases see issues 18, 264 and 326).

This week a similar case triggered howls of protest across the country. The initial incident happened in Liaocheng in Shandong, when a group of debt-collecting thugs physically and sexually assaulted a female entrepreneur in her factory in front of her 22 year-old son. Although the police were called, they merely told the assailants “You can collect debt but can’t beat up people” before leaving. When the thugs resumed the assault, the son Yu Huan picked up a fruit knife and stabbed the attackers, killing one and wounding three others. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

First reported by Southern Weekend last Thursday, the story immediately went viral across social media. Within three days, it had received 1.5 million comments on the major platforms and triggered hundreds of press reports and pick-ups. On Sina Weibo, a single feature on the story received 920 million views and half a million comments.

The public overwhelmingly sympathises with Yu and criticises the court ruling. Popular comments include “If a citizen is not allowed to defend his mother, how can you expect him to defend the country?”; or “The Chinese culture values filial piety above all other virtues yet Yu Huan was unfairly punished for being a filial son”; and “The sentence demonstrates how ridiculous and unfair China’s legal system is”.

Under the hashtag #If I were Yu Huan#, the large majority of 116,000 responses expressed support. “I now wish I were living in the US so that I could pick up a gun and kill all the thugs,” one respondent fumed.

The case also exposed the plight of many SMEs in China. Yu’s mother (surnamed Su) is an entrepreneur in the auto parts and steel manufacturing business, employing 200 people. In 2012, she was given an award by the provincial government for being debt-free for three consecutive years. However, with the collapse of steel prices due to overcapacity in 2013, her financial condition deteriorated. After failing to secure new bank loans she had to borrow from private creditors to pay back the existing bank debt. Private loans often carry wildly high interest rates and sometimes are provided by quasi-gangsters. The Rmb1.35 million loan she received from the thugs’ boss carried 10% monthly interest. She managed to pay back Rmb1.84 million, plus offfered an apartment as collateral, yet still owed a small amount. Last December, Su was arrested with her daughter for “illegal fund-raising and fraud” and her husband fled for fear of a similar fate.

Some netizens have criticised the banks for favouring the big SOEs over smaller firms and an article on Caixin.com also urged the government to enact bankruptcy laws that better protect SMEs like Su’s from falling into such a vicious cycle of indebtedness.

One interesting note is that the government censors did not, at least till now, try to block or delete public comments on the case. Many state-run media outlets also expressed sympathy with Yu. On Sunday, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced that it has sent a special taskforce to Shandong to investigate the case, which gave the public hope that the verdict may be overturned.

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]


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