Why justice must be seen to be done in 'child of privilege' rape case
Zhou Zunyou says a fair and balanced verdict in high-profile trial would be a triumph for the law
Public discussion remains intense on the high-profile incident involving 17-year-old Li Guanfeng, who was detained with four others by police in Beijing last month for allegedly taking part in a gang rape. Li does not come from an ordinary family: his father is Li Shuangjiang, a senior military official famous for singing patriotic songs.
This is not the first time Li Jnr, formerly known as Li Tianyi, has been in trouble. In September 2011, he attacked a couple after his unlicensed BMW crashed into their car. The assault landed him in a correctional facility for a year.
Now the extensive media coverage of the rape scandal and the ensuing public criticism are bringing further shame and disgrace on the family.
While the suspect's father has declined to comment, his mother, also a singer, reportedly said she would respect any punishment meted out to her son, but hoped for tolerance and leniency from the media and the public so he could start a new life. The imploring did not seem to evoke much sympathy.
Since Li's arrest in the rape investigation, there has been wild and hostile speculation. One rumour claims Li's age was falsified so he will be tried as a juvenile. Another alleges that the victim had agreed to drop the charge in return for hefty financial compensation. No matter how inconceivable, such "grapevine" news is often assumed to be true by those who have lost their trust in the law.
Behind the outcry and rumours lies a deep resentment about the behaviour of the privileged class, either through power or wealth, and especially against the recklessness of their spoiled sons and daughters - the "second generation". Although in theory everybody is equal before the law, privileged people often rise above it. If the suspect had not been Li Shuangjiang's son, there would not have been such an enormous interest.
A similar example was Li Qiming, who stirred national outrage in 2010. Li Qiming was drunk and driving his own car when he struck two students on a university campus in Baoding, Hebei province, killing one and injuring the other. He tried to flee the scene, but was blocked by university guards and fellow students.
In anger, he yelled out: "Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!" Li Gang was a local deputy police chief in Baoding. Immediately, the case aroused great public indignation. Father and son were pressured to apologise, in tears, to the public in TV interviews. In January 2011, Li Qiming was jailed for six years. In hindsight, his punishment was due to bad luck. After all, his wrongdoing and arrogance had already been exposed to the public before his father could take action to cover it up.
The Li Guanfeng case offers us, the public, an opportunity to reflect on social inequality and family education. From a legal perspective, it also gives a good lesson. When we discuss the case, we are exercising freedom of speech, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.
This right is not absolute, but subject to certain restrictions, particularly when it infringes on the lawful rights of other people. It is important to make sure we ourselves strictly observe the law, just as we expect Li Jnr and his family to do the same.
Without doubt, the suspect and his family have a lawful right to privacy. As Li Shuangjiang is a public figure, the people have greater latitude in exercising freedom of speech. His son is different. He is still a juvenile and his right to privacy requires more protection. According to the Law on the Protection of Juveniles, in the case of juvenile crimes, personal information - names, addresses, pictures and so on - should not be disclosed to the public.
Unfortunately, Li's name and pictures have been widely circulated. Some media outlets have even dug up his past by interviewing neighbours and classmates, while other reports have lacked balance.
Apart from the right to privacy, the suspect also has the right to a fair trial. It is no secret that the lawful rights of the accused are not well-protected in mainland criminal justice, while the judiciary is not genuinely independent. If there is no counter-balance, it is possible that the adjudicating court could, bowing to public pressure, curtail Li Jnr's right to a fair trial and, in the end, impose too harsh a punishment.
In this respect, to be rich is a good thing. At least the Li family can afford the best defence lawyers. It would be a welcome move if Li Shuangjiang were not to try to influence matters behind the scenes, as the privileged class usually do, to avoid a deserved penalty. Instead, he should take up the law to protect his son's fundamental right to a fair trial.
It would be a triumph for the law if the court adjudicated the case in an independent and impartial manner, despite strong public pressure and any possible intervention from those in high places.
Even if the final verdict was far from public expectations, the law would eventually gain the respect and confidence of the people in the long term.
Zhou Zunyou is a Chinese researcher and head of China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law