China asks: Should a 13-year-old boy get the death sentence for killing a 10-year-old girl?

Society & Culture

A 13-year-old boy in Dalian, Liaoning Province, has been sent to a juvenile correctional facility for a three-year term — the maximum allowed under Chinese law — after sexually assaulting and killing a 10-year-old girl last week. The brutal murder has ignited a firestorm of public anger on the Chinese internet, with many people suggesting that the boy should face a tougher sentence, as well as calling for a decrease in the age of criminal responsibility in the country. Currently, only persons above the age of 16 are treated as adults and can be held criminally responsible for any offense by China’s courts, whereas youth criminals aged between 14 to 16 can be tried for serious offenses such as murder, rape, robbery, arson, and drug trafficking.

The underage victim was found dead in a bush near her home on October 23, according to local police. Her body, covered with wounds and bruises, was hidden in a bag when her parents discovered it. After viewing surveillance video of nearby places, police quickly arrested the offender, a middle-school student, whose surname is Cài 蔡. Police say that Cai lured the girl to his home one day after school. At his apartment, Cai sexually assaulted the victim, stabbed her repeatedly, and then disposed of her body in a large plastic bag.

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It’s unclear if Cai and the girl knew each other prior to the incident, but the police found out that they had been in an after-school program together for some time and they lived in the same neighborhood.

The righteous indignation of hundreds of thousands of internet users toward Cai intensified after multiple accounts of the boy’s sexual harassment and predatory behavior surfaced on the internet. Three women who lived near Cai contacted (in Chinese) the Beijing News this week, claiming that they had experienced different forms of sexual harassment from Cai, from verbal to forcible touching. One of the alleged victims, who said that Cai once stalked her to find out where she lived, reported the boy’s behavior to the local police. But they essentially blew her off and didn’t take any action. Meanwhile, parents of Cai’s classmates also told the Beijing News that the teenage boy had behavioral issues at school, which they assumed was a result of permissive parenting.

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Calls for the death penalty

When interviewed (in Chinese) by the Huashang Daily, a Shanxi-based newspaper, the victim’s parents said that they had hired a lawyer and rejected a settlement offer suggested by Cai’s family, who have avoided meeting them, and have never delivered an apology for Cai’s crime. “We have no desire for money. All we want is the death penalty for Cai,” the girl’s uncle told the publication.

That’s a sentiment shared by many internet users, who argued (in Chinese) that Cai should be held accountable for his conduct because he had the ability to understand that murder was morally wrong. But much to their chagrin, Dalian’s Public Security Bureau announced on October 24 that Cai would not face criminal charges because existing Chinese law stipulates that minors under 14 are not held to be criminally responsible. Instead, Cai would spend the next three years in enforced rehabilitation, which was the harshest punishment allowed by the justice system.

The case once again brought the contentious issue of how to properly prosecute youth criminals to the forefront of public attention. Last year, a 12-year-old boy from Hunan Province confessed to stabbing his mother to death over an argument about smoking. It’s reported that a few days after the killing, the boy was released and returned to school because prosecutors were unable to charge him with murder. In March, similarly, a 13-year-old boy did not face criminal charges after killing his mother in an argument over a dog.