Chinese Law Prof Blog

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George Washington University Law School

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Responsibility for death in Chinese criminal law

Two cases from the last few years have got me thinking about the way Chinese criminal law thinks about responsibility for death. In the first case, a man was convicted of intentional homicide in Tianjin for allowing his wife to succeed in her suicide attempt. After a domestic spat, the wife had leapt into a sewer canal in an attempt to drown herself. The husband jumped in after her and attempted to coax her out. After she refused to do so, the husband returned to the bank, got out, and left. He then went to a relative's house, explained what had happened, and called police. By the time the police got to the scene almost an hour later, the wife was dead. Perhaps in recognition of these facts, the sentence was only six years - somewhat low, one would think, for a crime characterized as intentional homicide.

In the second case, a man caught a 17-year-old boy stealing his bicycle and, with the aid of two others, began beating him. The boy fled, eventually jumping into a river in an attempt to swim to the other side. Running out of strength, he began to swim back, but began sinking. The three men stood watching on the bank long enough to ensure that he had drowned and began to leave. They were in turn stopped by some boatmen, who kept them until the police arrived. The men were then charged with intentional homicide.

The second case doesn't seem to stretch traditional notions of homicide very far, if one views the men as having intentionally forced the boy into a life-threatening situation even though their original intention was probably not to kill him. The first case, however, is another matter.

Here I think we can separate out several issues: (1) What is the duty to help people generally? (2) What is the duty to help people with whom we have a special relationship? (3) What is the duty to help when the consequences of not doing so are fatal? My tentative hypothesis is that the first duty may be a bit stronger in China than in other countries, but probably not by much. I believe the second and third duties, though, are probably much stronger. In particular, the fact of death seems very important in Chinese criminal law; someone has to be held responsible.

Zhu Suli (朱苏力) in his book "Sending Law to the Countryside" (送法下乡) mentions a case in which the decedent (call him "D") had been drinking with two friends and was joyriding on a motorcycle around midnight. They ran two consecutive police checkpoints; when they approached the third, a policeman (Wang) fired two warning shots. After the motorcycle failed to stop, Wang fired again and hit one of the passengers (not D) in the leg. D continued driving the motorcycle for another kilometer until he collided with another vehicle and was killed. D's mother, who had lost her other son to drowning a year earlier, demanded Wang's arrest for murder. When the police refused, she committed suicide in protest. (Case summary taken semi-verbatim from Frank Upham, "Who Will Find the Defendant if He Stays With His Sheep? Justice in Rural China," 114 Yale L.J. 1675, 1683-84.)

The death of the motorcycle driver, and the subsequent death of the mother, put irresistible pressure on the local government to punish Wang. I think the criminal law as implemented in these cases reflects a genuine social belief that deaths don't just happen; someone needs to be held responsible. My hypothesis is that Wang's case and the case of the suicidal wife would have been seen quite differently if only injury had resulted, even though logically the cause-and-effect relationship would have been the same, and intentional injury is as much a crime as intentional homicide.

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