On the afternoon of April 14, 2016, Yu Huan, 22, and his mother were working at their brake disc company in eastern China’s Shandong Province, when 11 men arrived and blocked the company’s entrance, set up a grill and started drinking alcohol and barbecuing outside. It was the second day in a row that they’d been harassing the family.
Awhile later, the men cornered Yu, his mother and an employee in an office. One of the intruders exposed himself in front of Yu’s mother, Su Yinxia, in an attempt to humiliate her in front of her son, an eyewitness told the Southern Weekend newspaper.
Then things got worse.
“One guy grabbed me by the neck and tried to drag me to the reception room,” Yu told police, according to a court verdict posted online. “I resisted and they started to beat me.”
The men were debt collectors, coming to demand payment from the family. In 2014 and 2015, Su Yinxia had borrowed nearly $196,000 from a real estate agent, at a monthly interest rate of 10 percent. She’d paid back most of it but still owed $25,000.
Yu’s aunt, Yu Xiurong, managed to call police, according to the Southern Weekend, but the creditors kicked her to the ground and smashed her phone.
The police arrived. “You can try to collect your debt,” they reportedly told the debt collectors, “but you can’t beat people.” Then they left.
“I picked up a knife from a table, pointed it at [the debt collectors] and told them not to come at me,” Yu later told police. “They continued to beat me, and I thrust the knife at the bellies of the men surrounding me.”
Later, one of the men whom Yu had stabbed died of blood loss. Yu was charged with inflicting intentional injury. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on Feb. 17, avoiding the death penalty due his good behavior in cooperating with law enforcement authorities.
The court’s verdict found fault with both Yu’s actions and those of the debt collectors, all of whom have been arrested on suspicion to ties with organized crime.
The case has triggered a heated debate on social media in China about citizens’ right to self-defense, as well as the plight of small entrepreneurs under China’s economic policy amid a prolonged downturn in China’s economy.
The debate has been particularly sharp among China’s legal scholars.
“China’s law does not really encourage people to defend themselves, because that would be encouraging them to rise up and resist [authority],” Anhui Province-based lawyer Wang Liang Qi commented online. “That is not something that the nation’s rulers hope to see.”
Self-defense is in fact permitted by Chinese law. Several lawyers, however, argued that while Yu was right to defend himself, the threat level did not justify taking a life, even if doing so was not his intention.
“The police might even have turned a blind eye to the commission of a crime, so the person defending himself had no other option but to fight for his life and his freedom,” Beijing-based lawyer Yu Wenxin wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, in response to people’s questions.
But, he added: “Under Chinese law, the protection of human dignity is a lower priority than the protection of the right to human life.”
Beijing-based lawyer Zhang Qingfang, meanwhile, points out that the debt collectors had been harassing Yu and his mother for two days. He argues that Yu snapped and committed a crime of passion, something for which Chinese law does not have clear provisions.
Zhang also links reaction to the case to government censorship.
“It is precisely because of official controls on expression that some cases touch a raw nerve of the entire nation, and the government allows it to become an outlet for people’s opinion,” he told NPR in a phone interview.
Commentators and experts have also focused on economic aspects of the case.
The court noted that the $196,000 loan to Su Yinxia was illegal, as the monthly interest rate of 10 percent, totaling 120 percent annually, far exceeded the legal annual limit of 36 percent.
The state-run Global Times newspaper quotes Feng Liguo, an expert with the China Enterprise Confederation, a quasi-official business association, saying that Chinese banks loan most of their money to large, state-owned enterprises, and largely ignore small, private ones.
China’s economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2016, its slowest pace in a quarter-century. Many cash-strapped small enterprises have been forced in recent years to turn to private lenders and loan sharks.
Zhang Qingfang, the lawyer, notes that local officials are often involved in loan sharking, fueling popular anger.
Last August, police arrested Wu Xuezhan, the real estate merchant who made the loan to Yu’s mother, for suspected involvement in organized crime. He is facing trial. But Yu’s sister Jiale and his mother were also arrested in December, on suspicion of illegal fundraising. Authorization is required from China’s central bank to raise funds legally, something Yu’s mother did not have when she tried to raise funds to save her business.
Yu Huan’s case follows two others in China that attracted similarly intense public debate last year. One was the posthumous exoneration of Nie Shubin, more than two decades after he was wrongly executed for a murder to which another man later confessed.
The other was the case of a young environmentalist, Lei Yang, who died in police custody, spurring an outcry from middle class college graduates who felt threatened by the arbitrary and unaccountable exercise of Chinese police powers.
Apparently spurred to action by the public outcry over Yu’s case, the central government sent top prosecutors to Shandong Province to re-investigate the case. A higher provincial court has accepted Yu Huan’s appeal, and his family members say they intend to clear his name.
“If my nephew’s sentence is not overturned, I’ll keep on appealing,” Yu Xiurong, Yu Huan’s aunt, told NPR in a phone interview. “I’ll appeal all the way to President Xi Jinping, if I have to.”