Story by: Wenee Yap
Photo by: Vilia Co
Survival of the fittest. Expel the weak, wayside-fallen criminal delinquents for the overall good of society. Though Social Darwinism has long been disproved, its harsh reasoning can be seen to underpin the juvenile justice system of the People's Republic of China, which features a criminal law system designed for adult offenders applied to youths, irrespective of their age, circumstances or pettiness of the crime. For children or teenagers convicted of a crime, the consequences are shattering: expelled from school or university, gaoled and socially ostracised, they are virtually denied any future prospects other than a life of escalating crime.
Salvation has come in the form of one bicycle-riding, good-humoured judge in Beijing's sprawling district of Haidian, which deals with about one-quarter of Beijing's youth population. Senior Judge Shang Xiuyun of the People's Court of Haidian believes in education and granting a second chance to wayward Chinese youths, a philosophy which flies in the face of a society often unforgiving of criminals. She stresses rehabilitation over retribution, compassion over pragmatism - a form of 'bigger picture' Darwinism - values which have seen her volunteer scant spare time to visiting the families, schools and communities of the volatile teenagers who find their way to her courtroom, so that she may better understand what led them to crime.
"China's law relies on the principle of education, with punishment of subsidiary importance," said Judge Shang. "While working on my cases, I search for "bright spots" in delinquent youths, hoping to find ways to change their minds and lead them to the right path in life. In my 28 years, I have seen over 910 juvenile delinquents, 60 of whom were accepted by various vocational schools, 19 went on to study at universities, and 3 became graduate students."
Judge Shang is in Sydney with colleague and Professor Pi Yi-jun, from the China University of Political Science and Law and Director of the Centre of Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice, invited by the China Law Network to explore international approaches to dealing with juvenile offenders. Youth crime is a growing problem in China, which Professor Pi links to China's 'open door' policy of the early 1980s and its consequential confusion of morality and culture in its "eagerness to learn from overseas." Said Professor Pi: "The era of traditional Chinese culture is over. In China's current confused state, we are undergoing a 'reorganisation of morality.'" Indeed, crime amongst 14 year old girls alone has risen from 5% to 10% during the last two decades.
Judge Shang's efforts are the subject of an acclaimed film in China and have won her the fond nickname, 'Court Mother.' With the pride of a blood parent, she related one of her best "bright spot" success stories - an impoverished brilliant 16 year old college student driven to steal four bicycles to pay living expenses in costly Beijing. Expelled from a 'key' university despite topping the country's college entrance exams at the prodigious age of 15, his prospects looked lost. Remorseful and repentant, he received only a suspended sentence. The real challenge lay with regaining his student status at the university. Its regulations were clear: any student who violated criminal law would be expelled, no exceptions. Judge Shang, with a court clerk in tow, called upon the university president and conferred for over five hours. Her vigour and passion raised the President's suspicion, provoking him at one point to ask if she had any family connection to the boy. None, replied the court clerk, angered and exhausted.
"We were really disheartened," said Judge Shang. "I asked myself, 'If he were my son, would I spare any effort to save him? If he were given a second chance, he would probably become a talent of the nation. No, he had to have a second chance."
Her campaign succeeded; the university president was persuaded and allowed the boy to be re-admitted to university after an exemplary year spent working at a factory affiliated with the university. As predicted, he became a stellar student, going on to complete a Masters degree at a top Beijing university and an illustrious career in academia. He even called twice to invite Judge Shang to his wedding. "In my 28 years as a judge, I have never accepted any invitations or gifts. Still, I went to his wedding in an auspicious red cardigan, and he introduced me to all his teachers and friends saying, 'This is my mother.'"
Recalling the many former juvenile offenders who now affectionately refer to Judge Shang as their 'mum', the judge smiles. Many write and send videos to her to share their success in their studies, careers, and their "heartfelt joy of falling in love," little notes which make this court mother beam with pride. "All I know is that serving a child is equal to serving a whole family," said Judge Shang.
China is currently trialling a 'suspended prosecution system' for youth offenders: 3-12 months spent under public surveillance as a substitute for prison-time where, according to Judge Shang, "bad behaviour is learnt from other criminals." Repentance and reform during this period would lead to exemption from prosecution.
"Only a handful of people are involved in juvenile justice in China," said Professor Pi. "I really hope we can do a lot more internationally, perhaps a cooperative project with UTS. I sincerely believe if we could help the children in China, we could help the whole nation."