Unveiling the complexities of juvenile crime
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2024-04-01  ·   Source: NO.14 APRIL 6, 2023
Two prosecutors (left) in Ruyang County, Henan Province, promote legal knowledge on the prevention of school violence to local elementary students on March 7 (XINHUA)

A recent criminal case has thrust the issue of juvenile delinquency into the spotlight in China, provoking public outrage.

On March 10, in Handan City in Hebei Province, a 13-year-old middle school student was brutally murdered by three male classmates. The body of the victim, surnamed Wang, was discovered buried beneath a vegetable greenhouse. The discovery shocked the local community and triggered condemnation nationwide.

The three suspects were detained the next day. Wang was later revealed to have been a long-time victim of school bullying, a fact adding another layer of complexity to an already heartbreaking situation.

This heinous act has brought the issue of juvenile delinquency to the forefront of hot social media topics, prompting intense discussion and grave concern.

Campus tragedy

According to a report by China Central Television on March 19, following their preliminary investigation, local police in Handan had classified this case as "premeditated" murder.

A focal point of the online discussions at the time of writing has been the type of punishment these underage individuals will face.

China's Criminal Law used to set the age of criminal responsibility for murder at 14 years old. A Criminal Law amendment effective from March 1, 2021, has lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in special cases such as intentional homicide by extremely cruel means or intentional injury by extremely cruel means leading to death or severe disability, if such prosecution requests are approved by the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP). The SPP is China's highest procuratorial organ responsible for overseeing legal supervision, prosecution and investigation of cases.

The age was lowered in response to the argument that children today mentally mature earlier and are physically more developed than previous generations.

Juveniles should be held criminally liable in line with the law if they commit severe crimes, such as intentional homicide or intentional injury that lead to deaths, said Ying Yong, Procurator General of the SPP, said after the Handan case. He ordered prosecutors to fight against people harming children with "zero-tolerance."

Experts suggest that the Handan murder could be the first case in China to apply this new age threshold.

"This case could set a precedent for similar cases in the future," Luo Xiang, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said on his personal video account on Bilibili, a major video platform mainly targeting Gen Zs. "We hope it can serve as a strong deterrent to minors who might harbor criminal impulses or intentions."

Wang Hongwei, a law professor at the Renmin University of China School of Public Administration and Policy, spoke to Global Times newspaper, noting that the Handan incident has garnered considerable attention because it involves a case of school bullying that escalated to the murder of a student by his peers.

This underscores the pressing need to reinforce the safety of minors, particularly students.

The recent crime, along with a spate of other offenses involving underage perpetrators, has catapulted the issue of campus bullying, a pervasive problem that can have devastating consequences for victims, perpetrators and the broader school community alike, back into the limelight.

On March 14, police in Yingshan County, Sichuan Province, reported that six students engaged in a conflict with a classmate, resulting in a violent attack in the school's female restroom that included kicking and slapping of the victim. Three assailants, all aged 14 and above, were detained.

On March 18, then, video footage from a school in Jinan, Shandong Province, showed a male student being beaten by two classmates in a restroom. Authorities indicated that the victim was a seventh-grade student, while the aggressors were ninth-graders.

Research from the China Youth and Children Research Center, which surveyed over 3,000 underage students in China from 2020 to 2022, revealed that 53.5 percent reported experiencing bullying at school. However, only 20.3 percent of those surveyed indicated that they would report such incidents to teachers, schools or parents if the bullying were to reoccur.

Shared responsibility

The Handan case raises questions about whether the existing age of criminal responsibility aligns with the cognitive and emotional development of modern youth and whether it effectively considers the complexities of juvenile behavior, and sparks debates on whether the age should be further lowered.

Understanding the causes behind these tragedies requires a deeper examination of the underlying issues.

Xiong Weirui, a psychologist from Chongqing Normal University, shared in an online media interview that using age as the sole criterion to determine maturity is not appropriate.

"Conventional wisdom suggests that individuals typically reach personality maturity by the age of 18. But it is important to consider that mature personalities can also emerge in youths as young as 16, 14 or even younger," he said. "Some youths exhibit early signs of antisocial personality, such as habitual lying or a tendency toward bullying, which can be influenced by both their home environment and societal education."

He further noted that the early exposure of children to smartphones grants them access to a plethora of online content, possibly obscuring the distinction between digital and actual behaviors and making acts of violence seem less consequential.

The case has also brought to the forefront the issues faced by "left-behind" children as the four kids involved in the tragedy in Handan are all left-behind children.

"Left-behind children" is a term used in China to describe children who are left in their rural hometowns while one or both parents migrate to urban areas or other regions for work. These children are typically cared for by extended family members, such as grandparents or relatives. Sometimes they are left to fend for themselves.

"These children are often more susceptible to becoming involved in or victims of juvenile crime," Lu Ming, a professor of economics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told National Business Daily newspaper. "The vulnerability of these children stems from several factors, including the absence of parental guidance and a lack of adequate supervision at school."

In the Handan incident, it was noted that the victim had suffered prolonged bullying, yet the school failed to take action. Lu emphasized the need for a collective effort to prevent school bullying from escalating into criminal behavior.

"China's Law on the Protection of Minors highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to safeguarding minors. This has culminated in a range of protective systems that include families, schools, society and the judicial system," he elaborated.

Following the crime in Handan, educational bodies nationwide have initiated measures to combat school bullying. The Education Bureau of Songyuan in Jilin Province issued an open letter to parents, urging them to stay in touch with teachers about their children's school life and collaborate in educating them about bullying. The letter also recommended taking immediate action and reporting any instances of bullying.

Similar communications were dispatched by education authorities elsewhere, while cities are intensifying educational efforts on preventing campus bullying.

On March 21, in Zhaoyuan City of Shandong Province, several educational bodies cohosted a seminar themed Say No to Campus Bullying for young students, underscoring the legal aspects. The session included animated videos and discussions on specific cases to impart the serious consequences of bullying, with lawyers explaining sections of the Law on the Protection of Minors and providing information on support hotlines and rights protection channels.

"Combating the uptick in juvenile delinquency necessitates a twofold strategy that integrates both punitive and educational measures," Liu Changsong, an attorney at Beijing Mugong Law Firm, told Global Times. "It's imperative for schools and parents to collaborate in creating environments that deter delinquency and promote the welfare of all students." 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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