Written by Amy Qin
Hong Kong— It began with a quarrel over cigarettes.
Weighed down by loans and the burden of single parenting, a 34-year-old woman often took home leftover food and unopened packs of cigarettes from the banquets she occasionally attended in a nearby village in central China.
But one night earlier this month, she discovered that her 12-year-old son had stolen and smoked four packs, and she exploded with rage and beat him, according to local media reports.
The next morning, the woman identified only by her surname, Chen (her full name was not released by authorities) was found dead in her bedroom, stabbed to death by her son, police said. When the boy, who has been identified only by his surname, was asked by relatives if he regretted his actions, he said that he did, but that he didn’t think it was a big deal.
“I didn’t kill anyone else. I killed my mom,” he was quoted as saying.
Back in School
In the eyes of many Chinese, the boy was a heartless criminal who deserved to be punished. But in China, where the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 14, he could not be held legally responsible. The boy was released by authorities in the town of Yuanjiang, in Hunan province, with no conditions.
Five days after he stabbed his mother more than 20 times, the sixth-grader was back in school. Parents were irate.
The grisly story, which has spread quickly across Chinese social media, has prompted a public debate in China about whether the country’s juvenile justice system, which has been praised in recent years for its focus on rehabilitation over punishment, is in fact too lenient.
It has also reignited debate about a question that countries around the world have long grappled with: At what age should a child be held responsible for his or her crimes?
At the heart of the question is the issue of when a child can be deemed to have intent to commit a crime. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends the age of 12 as an “absolute minimum” of criminal responsibility.
U.N. officials have cited research about child cognitive development and the dangers of exposing children to violence in prisons. But there is no global consensus. In the United States, the minimum age of criminal responsibility for federal crimes is 11. But in 33 states, children of any age can theoretically be convicted and sentenced at the state level. In India, the minimum age is 7, compared with 16 in Timor-Leste.
Some countries are considering changing the minimum age of culpability. In Australia, officials are looking into a proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 16 from 10. In the Philippines, by contrast, President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to lower the minimum age from 15 as part of his brutal war on drugs.
‘He Looked at Me and Smiled’
In China, the boy in Yuanjiang may have been underage. But to many who followed the case, there was no question that the boy had intended to commit a crime.
Many pointed to reports about his behavior before and after the killing. When neighbors heard screams coming from the family’s apartment on the night of the stabbing, the boy told them through the door that everything was fine and that his mother was just upset because his 2-year-old brother had soiled the bed, according to Chinese news reports.
The morning after the killing, the boy sent his teacher a message from his mother’s phone to say that he had a cold and that he would not be at school, news reports said. When his grandfather stopped by to check in later that morning, the boy told him that his mother had gone out.
The boy’s great-aunt told The Beijing News: “I asked him if he missed his mother. He shook his head and said no. I asked if he was afraid. He looked at me and smiled. I asked if he hated his mother. He nodded.”
His behavior led many people to say he should be held responsible for the crime.
“You can’t use age as a standard for everything,” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Since we recognize that some children are talented and even exceed the IQ level of adults, we should also accept that some children have surpassed adults and are precocious.”
But Zhang Hongwei, a professor at the Juvenile and Family Law Center at Jinan University, cautioned against moving too quickly to lower the minimum age of culpability, arguing that the problems of juvenile justice required a more “systematic” approach in China, which has a unified criminal justice system for both adults and juveniles.
He pointed to recent efforts to set up an independent juvenile system, similar to that in the United States. He also called for an overhaul of China’s work-study centers, which act as rehabilitation centers for juveniles who commit minor offenses.
“Even if we lower the minimum age, it can’t change everything fundamentally,” Zhang said.
Plight of Migrant Workers
The Yuanjiang killing highlighted a related issue that has long been a concern in China: the difficulties facing the more than 286 million migrant workers who leave home every year in search of work in the bigger cities.
According to local news reports, the boy was, like the children of many migrant workers, “left behind” in his hometown at a young age and raised mostly by his grandparents. He had moved in with his mother for the first time earlier this year, relatives told reporters.
It is an experience that scholars say can be deeply destabilizing for young children. Researchers say a high proportion of juvenile crimes in cities are committed by children of migrant workers, who often face widespread discrimination in terms of access to schools, health care and employment, and are pushed into petty crime.
“It has become one of the most serious social problems right now,” Zhang said. “The family support social mechanism for children of migrant workers is very underdeveloped.”
The day after the boy’s release, his father, a migrant worker in Guangdong province who goes back home twice a year, tried to send the boy back to school. But parents protested, citing concerns about their children’s safety.
Shunned by locals, the boy and his family fled to a $11.50-per-night hotel in a nearby town. On Thursday, the boy’s grandfather told reporters that local officials had agreed to pay for the boy to be sent to an asylum in the provincial capital of Changsha.
The family could not be reached for more details. The boy’s father has already gone back to Guangdong.