Hit-and-run cases are not uncommon in Chinese courts, but no case has generated as much debate as Yao Jiaxin’s did. Most Chinese netizens, believing Yao’s case to be a milestone of “justice for all” in the Chinese legal system, severely condemned Yao’s cold-blooded killing of Zhang Miao and strongly demanded that he receive the death penalty. However, several prestigious scholars petitioned for a lighter sentence that would give Yao, a talented young musician, a chance to repay the victim’s family and contribute to the society.
Then, we might ask the question: what factors led to Yao’s tragic fall from talented musician to criminal? What eventually killed Yao and how did this event spark a discussion on the future of capital punishment in China?
Yao Jiaxin was a 21-year-old university student at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music in Shaanxi Province. On the night of October 20, 2010, Yao, while driving his red Chevrolet, knocked down Zhang Miao who was returning from work at around 11 p.m. near the university campus. Zhang, a 26-year-old peasant mother of a two-year-old, supported her big family by working as a waitress. Zhang suffered only minor injuries from the accident, according to police, and was able to write down the vehicle’s license plate number. Fearing that she would report him to the police, Yao took out his knife and stabbed Zhang six times on her chest, back and stomach until she died. While he was trying to escape, he hit two other people in a nearby village and was caught on the spot.
On October 23, accompanied by his parents, Yao went to the local police station and confessed to the crime. When asked why he killed Zhang, he said he was afraid that had she survived, Zhang might have blackmailed him over the car accident. Yao was arrested on the same day.
During the three-hour trial on March 23, 2011, Yao’s lawyer argued that the model student Yao committed the killing “in the heat of passion,” driven by fear of the consequences, and pleaded for leniency. The lawyer also pointed out that Yao had “surrendered himself to police and [that] depression was to blame, to some extent, for the killing.” At court, Yao broke into tears as he talked about being forced to play the piano by his parents and that such pressure even drove him to consider suicide. Yao’s father tried to offer Zhang’s family 30,000 yuan ($4,594), but Zhang’s family members, calling it “blood money,” turned the offer down.
Despite these efforts, on April 22, Yao was sentenced to death by the Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court. On May 20, the Shaanxi Provincial Higher People’s Court rejected Yao’s appeal. Finally, the Supreme People’s Court held that Yao had committed the crime of intentional killing. According to a statement provided by the Supreme People’s Court, “Yao stabbed the victim’s chest, stomach and back several times until she died. The motive was extremely despicable, the measures extremely cruel and the consequences extremely severe.” On June 7, the National College Entrance Examination Day, Yao was on his way to the execution ground.
However, Yao’s case did not end with his death; in fact, it sparked various discussions over the education system, the role media played in reporting the news and the public opinions, the social circumstance, and capital punishment in China.
The education system
The biggest irony of this case is perhaps that Yao’s execution is on the starting day of the National College Entrance Examination. Yao passed this exam three years ago and since then had been a good student receiving a merit-based scholarship. Unfortunately, this art college student became a ruthless murderer overnight. This mystery makes many people to question: what’s wrong with our education system?
From an examination monitor:
When parents send their children to the exam rooms, none of them really care about their children’s personality, values or psychological health. They only care about the scores and what kind of university their children can enter. So was the thinking of Yao’s parents. They applied a cruel training regimen to get him into the conservatory of music. Such a rigid education deprives children of their natural development and oppresses their personalities and hopes for life. Yao’s parents discarded his character and psychology, and moreover, love and responsibility, the essential elements of education. Lack of care and love in Yao’s growth caused a psychological distortion. That’s why he behaved so cruelly.
As Li Bo, a scholar on Chinese classics, summarized, three education issues stand in the way of kids’ development: lack of parenting, mass education and moral education.
Another more radical scholar went even further, blaming Yao’s parents for the cruel crime, calling them “culprits” of Yao’s execution.
The widespread media coverage of Yao’s case turned out to be a crucial factor in determining his death penalty. Generally, hit-and-run cases will not necessarily lead to a capital punishment, but in Yao’s case, most people, furious about his brutal killing of Zhang, demanded that “Yao Jiaxin must die.”
Since many previous car accidents resulted from teenagers born to wealthy and powerful families, the public is extremely antagonistic towards this group of young adults. When the news of Yao’s case was first reported online, many believed that Yao was “the second Li Qiming”, the second generation of wealth and power. Even though a number of state media reporters tried to cool down netizens’ hatred towards Yao by proving that he was not rich, such efforts have failed.
As soon as public hatred was aroused, it became extremely difficult to appease the angry crowd. Most netizens expressed their wish for immediate execution of Yao: as one of them wrote on his blog, “No matter if Yao is second-generation poor or second-generation rich, he has to pay for his crime with his life.”
Still, few people felt sympathy for Yao. Some believed that rural people are as troublesome as Yao believed them to be. One of Yao’s university classmates supported his decision to kill the peasant. “If I were him (Yao), I would have stabbed her as well. How come public opinion always supports the victim? How come they do not consider how shameless it is for her to mark down the car’s license plate number?” Others defended Yao by arguing that the accident was a “crime of passion.” Li Meijin, a professor of criminal psychology at Chinese People’s Public Security University, first brought up this idea when interviewed by the CCTV. “When Yao was stabbing Zhang, he was simply repeating keystrokes mechanically as a result of being forced by his parents to play the piano.”
Nevertheless, these arguments not only failed to bring a lighter sentence for Yao, but also generated even more intense public outrage that eventually led to the death of this young man. Yahoo China conducted an online survey, whose results demonstrated public pressure for a death penalty in Yao’s case. With such pressure, any ruling protecting Yao, may trigger a mass incident due to public mistrust of the legal system in China. In the end, public media pushed Yao to the execution ground on June 7th, 2011.
Is capital punishment really the answer?
Before Yao’s execution, the victim’s family refused financial compensation and apologies from Yao’s family and demanded only Yao’s death. “I want nothing but him (Yao) dead; otherwise, I won’t bury my wife!” Wanghui, Zhang’s husband, announced to the media.
I understand those who advocated for the immediate death of Yao: they were afraid that society would become subject to the law of the jungle and that the weak would become vulnerable. Their fear is justifiable, especially in China where the legal system is still incomplete.
However, capital punishment might be an out-dated method to ensure justice for all. As one microblogger pointed out, “Yao’s execution was in fact a step away from a society ruled by law as the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ brought us backward into the dark past.” As people celebrated the death of Yao and condemned those that felt sympathy for him, they instantly showed their cruelty and disrespect for life as well. According to a well-known reporter, Luo Shuyi, this concept of retaliation should be abolished and “rule by virtue” should be promoted in the society. One possible way to promote such a society governed by virtue would be to ban capital punishment.
The death of Yao Jiaxin might quiet down public fervor over this cruel accident, but it will not settle down the debates on the Chinese education system and capital punishment.
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