A Curious Sense of Justice

Posted: June 12, 2012 in Chinese Culture

Last week Global Times reported a story of one Shanghai woman’s very shitty day. While walking home with her son, she was all-of-sudden hit by a blob of falling poop. After complaining to the neighborhood committee, it was determined that the feces-flinger must have come from one of four apartments above where the woman was hit. She was awarded 600 yuan in damages (the article didn’t make clear by whom) but since the exact perpetrator couldn’t be nailed down, all four apartments were ordered to pay 150 yuan each.

The story shows one of the peculiarities of China’s legal rationale that’s presumably a remnant of socialism, or perhaps even Confucianism. Several years ago I read a very similar case (which I can’t find now) where a woman was hit by a falling plant vase and sustained nearly 100,000 yuan’s ($15,749) worth of injuries. But investigators could only narrow down the origin of the plant to 30 balconies, so, you guessed it, the residents were all ordered to share the burden at about 3,300 yuan ($520) a piece.

Over the years whenever I’ve gotten on legal topics with Chinese friends, I’ve mentioned this case. To my surprise, more often than not, they support the verdict. When I ask how they can justify punishing 29 completely innocent people, they’ve basically said “100,000 is so much money for that one innocent woman to pay, but 3,300 is relatively little for the others.” They admit that they’d be very upset if they were one of the 29 innocents, but in the end 3,300 yuan would merely inconvenience their life, whereas 100,000 yuan on top of debilitating injuries could very well ruin the victim’s life.

I can’t say I agree with this rationale at all, but it is intriguing. It’s especially interesting imagining what other circumstances are influenced by this collectivist mindset – where suffering is spread equitably and manageably at the expense of complete fairness.

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  1. C. says:

    What I find fascinating about this is that, from a policy perspective, it provides a disincentive for people to behave responsibly. it winds up being a watered down tragedy of the commons.

    It does explain why China’s so dangerous compared to the West.

  2. Neville says:

    You may not be familiar with the legal concept of ‘joint and several liability’. This means (in western countries) that if many different people or companies contributed to a problem but only one can be found (or still exists, or has any money available to be taken) that sole defendant becomes liable for the entire amount awarded to a plaintiff, even if legally they were found by the same court at the same time to have been responsible for only a tiny percentage of the damage done. Suffering is thus concentrated inequitably and unmanageably at the expense of complete fairness…

  3. matt says:

    @Neville. Politely disagree. “Joint and several liability” switches the responsibility of sorting out and collecting damages from the injured party to someone who did something wrong (but maybe wasn’t 100% responsible). The unlucky defendant can sue the other wrongdoers to collect the other guys’ cut. The Shanghai situation looks more like an insurance scheme where everyone in compelled to pay their premium after something bad happens.

  4. Jeremy says:

    You could also say the others were being punished for their complicity. I remember in school when teachers couldn’t determine who threw the snotwad or whatever, and the other students refused to snitch, they would all be punished equally. This isn’t quite the same, but who is to say that one of the neighbors didn’t volunteer information about one of their fecal fetishist neighbors that could have resolved the issue?

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