In 2010, a contestant on a dating show announced she would rather “cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle”.
It was a phrase that captured a moment in Chinese society. The richer were getting richer, social inequality was growing, and money was power.
The saying also locked the two means of transport together in peoples’ minds as opposite sides of a coin: the rich driver of the BMW who treats his girlfriend badly, and the honest but poor person on two wheels.
Arguably it set the stage for what is now known as the ‘Brother Dragon incident’ – a road-rage killing with a twist that has dominated social media for the last week.
The altercation began commonly enough. On the night of August 28 the driver of a BMW wanted turn across a cycle lane at traffic lights in Kunshan, a city in Jiangsu province. However, a man on an electric bike refused to give way to the illegal manoeuvre and the car hit him.
The cyclist stopped, further blocking the car, and the three people inside the BMW got out to challenge him.
The driver, a tattooed gangster named Liu Hailong was particularly furious. Video footage of the event (from a security camera) shows him beating 41 year-old Yu Haiming, the cyclist, before he runs back to his vehicle to grab a knife.
During the scuffle Liu drops the 60cm blade. Having stayed relatively unreactive until this point, Yu picks it up and slashes at his attacker – hitting his mark at least six times.
Both men were taken to hospital and Liu, 36, later died from his wounds, leading the police to arrest Yu on charges of “intentional injury”.
But when footage of the incident – and Yu’s badly bruised face – began to circulate online, the public felt the case wasn’t so simple. Yu, a maintenance man at a hotel, was acting in self-defence, most believed. He was the law-abiding “little guy” who had snapped when pushed too far by an unreasonable bully.
Liu – whose nickname was Brother Dragon – was a convicted criminal who had served prison time for blackmail and robbery.
There were problems with this simple narrative, however. Once Yu had grabbed the knife and Liu tried to grab a gun from his car, Yu ran after him and slashed at him several more times. The question was whether Yu had used “excessive force,” whatever the provocation.
“Liu drove a BMW, was drunk, has tattoos, produced the knife, and attacked Yu first, so many people think he is ‘underworld’ and deserved to die, but this emotional response runs counter to the spirit of the law, ” warned a lawyer quoted by ThePaper.cn.
Others agreed that the moment when Liu tried to run away was when Yu’s actions moved beyond self-defence.
“Once the threat is lifted you can’t argue justifiable defence,” explained another lawyer in the Legal Daily.
Yet others made the case that Liu still had the ability to attack Yu by driving his car into him, getting another weapon from the vehicle or calling for back-up (Liu’s two friends had already run off).
“The fear the electric bike owner was experiencing can only be imagined. It is difficult to ask him to grasp the change of [legal] status in his behaviour after picking up the weapon and attacking,” ThePaper.cn also quoted a Beijing prosecutor as saying.
Netizens saw it even more plainly. “Yu is a hero. If he is convicted there is something wrong with our legal system,” wrote one Sina Weibo user. The event has so far racked up 1.8 billion views on the social media. “Thank God we have surveillance footage so we can see what actually happened,” said another.
Two day after the incident the police in Kunshan announced they weren’t pressing charges against Yu. In a statement also posted on Sina Weibo, the authorities reasoned that Liu had attacked first and endangered Yu’s safety. They noted that Yu’s first blow to Liu’s abdomen was probably the one that proved fatal and that Yu’s attack on Liu had only lasted a few seconds.
“Yu’s behavior is deemed legitimate defence and he does not bear criminal responsibility,” they said
The result was surprising when seen in the context of other court rulings in which self-defence is rarely accepted as a mitigating factor. The magazine Caixin looked into the topic. It found that the legal industry search engine Itslaw.com had listed 12,346 cases where a “justifiable defence” argument had been attempted. Only 16 were successful.
Almost inevitably, state news agency Xinhua saw positives in the ruling, praising the decision by the police as “a victory for the rule of law”. The People’s Daily even called it “inspiring” and said it would “warm the hearts of the people”.
“Activating the application of a ‘justifiable defence’ can guarantee the legitimate rights of citizens and deter criminals effectively,” it added.
Others think the case better demonstrates how the power of public opinion can steer decisionmaking in China – thanks to the mobilising power of social media. What would have happened if the attack hadn’t been caught on camera, for instance, or if it had failed to come to the attention of the nation’s netizens?
Longtime WiC readers will recall a similar case that captivated the public in 2009 involving a waitress in a bathhouse who killed a government official who was trying to rape her. She was arrested for murder before the public outcry led to the charges being dropped (see WiC18).
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