Another male Chinese college student avoids prison after being convicted of rape

Society & Culture

Yet another lenient sentence for a convicted rapist, this time because he was young and appeared contrite in court, has outraged Chinese social media.

china university rape

File this one under “where have we seen this before:” In Zhejiang Province, a college student accused of sexual assault has been given probation rather than prison time, on the basis that the judge considered him to be a “first-time offender” who would not commit sex crimes again after being caught. 

The news about the penalty has provoked a strong reaction on Chinese social media, where critics said the punishment was too lenient and set an ominous precedent for sexual assaults on Chinese college campuses.

According to court filings (in Chinese) released last week, the offender, surnamed Zhào 赵, and the victim, surnamed Yán 严, were both members of a university music group. The night of the incident, they were at a band practice with two other friends where all of them consumed alcohol. It’s unclear when and where this occurred. Later that evening, Zhao took Yan, who was intoxicated and unconscious, to a different practice room, held her down on a couch, and raped her. 

The verdict noted that while Zhao didn’t turn himself in to the police after the assault, he swiftly pleaded guilty and admitted to raping Yan after being arrested. Given that Zhao had no significant prior offenses and he had “received forgiveness” from Yan through “active efforts to compensate her,” the judge from the People’s Court of Yuecheng District, Shaoxing City, handed down jail terms of three years to Yan, but rather than having to serve time, he was given a four year probation period.  

Under Article 236 of China’s criminal law, the standard penalty for rape is three to ten years’ imprisonment. But the judge decided to be lenient. Jīn Zégāng 金泽刚, a law professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University who supports the probation sentence, argued that Yan’s age — he was 20 when he raped Zhao — and hims “demonstration of repentance” (悔罪表现 huǐzuìbiǎoxiàn) during the trial were reasons that an actual prison sentence would be too grave for him. “The purpose of punishment is not only to censure the criminal, but also to elicit attitudes of repentance in the offender in order to prevent him from committing crimes again,” Jin wrote in an article (in Chinese) published in the Beijing News.

Although the sentence was within the bounds of the law, it kicked off a firestorm of controversy as critics on Chinese social media blasted the decision as far too lenient and called for the court to rectify what they saw as “a travesty to justice.” On Weibo, the main hashtag associated with the news — “College student receiving a four-year probation after raping his intoxicated female classmate” (大学生酒后强奸女同学获缓刑4年) — has been viewed about 450 million times, with thousands of angry comments saying that the punishment was inappropriately light. 

“Who in his right mind would think the punishment is fair when comparing Yan’s zero prison time to the fact that his victim will have to live with the psychological consequences of his assault for the rest of her life? He deserves to be behind bars!” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another said (in Chinese), “This is an insult to women, especially survivors of sexual violence.”

Others demanded to know whether Yan’s school, whose name was not made public yet, had allowed Yan back on the campus or made any meaningful changes to its sexual assault policies. “It really disgusts me to imagine him walking freely around the campus as if nothing happened. He’s a danger to others,” a Weibo user commented.

Many also pointed out that Yan’s slap on the wrist is not an outlier, but rather a continuing pattern of how young, college-age offenders who perpetrate rape are often given light sentences by judges who apparently are concerned not to ruin their promising futures. Last year, in a case that unsettled the nation, a male student from the prestigious Zhejiang University was only given probation and allowed to continue his studies after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman who was not a student of his school.