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Between Law and Morality

In one of the most controversial cases in China’s recent history, a court ruling over a murder in Japan and liability rekindled debates over accountability

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Apr.1

Jiang Qiulian speaks to reporters after the ruling outside Chengyang District People’s Court, Qingdao, Shandong Province, January 10, 2022

On January 10, a Shandong Province court ordered the friend of a murdered Chinese student in Japan to pay 696,000 yuan ($109,000) in compensation to the victim’s mother, five years after the high-profile case first came to public attention.  

According to the ruling, Liu Xin, who has since changed her name to Liu Nuanxi, is liable for the death of her friend Jiang Ge, who was stabbed to death by Liu’s ex-boyfriend Chen Shifeng on November 3, 2016 in the hallway outside the apartment both women were living in. 

The Murder 
All three were Chinese students studying in Tokyo. According to court documents, Liu and Jiang, both 24 at the time and from Qingdao, East China’s Shandong Province, were good friends. Two months prior to Jiang Ge’s death, Liu was stalked and threatened by her ex-boyfriend, 26-year-old Chen Shifeng from Yulin, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Liu asked Jiang for help, and she agreed that Liu could stay with her.  

But Chen followed Liu to Jiang’s apartment and continued to harass and stalk her.In at least one incident, Jiang stepped out to confront Chen and protect her friend. In the early hours of November 2, 2016, after receiving threatening messages from Chen, Liu was frightened and asked Jiang Ge to meet her at a subway station to walk home together. But when they arrived, Chen was waiting outside Jiang Ge’s apartment.  

What happened next is disputed. But by the time Liu called the police, she was inside Jiang Ge’s apartment with the door locked from the inside. Jiang Ge was outside, where Chen had stabbed her 10 times. She died in hospital.  

After Jiang Ge’s death, Liu moved out of Jiang’s apartment and made no attempt to contact Jiang Ge’s mother, Jiang Qiulian, who later traveled to Japan. After gaining access to the police files, Jiang Qiulian, who raised her only daughter as a single mother, started to question Liu’s role in the incident. But despite the bereaved mother’s repeated attempts, Liu refused to see her.  

When Jiang Qiulian sought help from the media, Liu sent text messages threatening to stop cooperating with Japanese investigators if she continued to question Liu’s actions that night.  
In her initial interviews with police in Japan and Chinese media, Liu insisted that she had no idea what was happening outside her friend’s apartment and only called the police after hearing a commotion.  

But the released transcripts of her two calls to Japanese police revealed that Jiang Ge could be heard screaming for help and Liu said the victim had fallen to the ground. Liu then changed her narrative several times, claiming that the door was stuck and could not be opened, or that she was only following police advice to stay inside.  

In the civil case in Shandong, Liu said the transcripts of her two separate calls to the police were “mistranslated,” but claimed she could not remember what exactly happened.

Online Furor 
The case has led to heated discussion in China. Many accused Liu of being selfish for locking her friend out and harboring a “cold-blooded” attitude toward both her friend’s death and her friend’s mother.  

Others argue that Liu was also a victim who instinctively sought safety, and that Jiang Qiulian should not have appealed to the court of public opinion for a moral judgement against Liu, which has ruined Liu’s life.  

In December 2017, Chen was convicted of murdering Jiang Ge in a Japanese court and received a 20-year sentence. But for Jiang Qiulian and many of China’s netizens, it did not provide closure.  

The sentence fell short of what Jiang Qiulian expected. She had collected 1.5 million signatures on a petition from Chinese netizens calling to sentence Chen to death, but Liu’s evasiveness about how and why Jiang Ge was locked outside during her witness testimony led to widespread perception that the trial did not reveal the whole truth.  

After returning to China, Jiang Qiulian continued to pursue Liu through social media posts, media interviews and lawyers, which led to what many called an “online lynching” of Liu. Over time, Liu became more hostile toward Jiang Qiulian. During the Lunar New Year holidays in 2018, a time when people send good wishes to family and friends, Liu sent a text message to Jiang Qiulian wishing her “a happy family reunion.”  

In 2019, as Jiang Qiulian continued to fight for a court case in China, Liu sent her a number of abusive text messages. In a Weibo post in June 2019, Liu called Jiang Qiulian “an old bitch” and ridiculed Jiang’s exhaustion and frustration. “I have a lot of pictures of your daughter that you don’t have. Don’t you want to see them?” Liu wrote.  

Four months later on October 2 during China’s National Day holiday, Liu posted on Weibo saying she would send some “not illegal but soul tormenting” gifts to Jiang Qiulian – “pigeon meat” and “duck neck.”  

In Chinese, “pigeon” is pronounced ge, a homonym of her late friend’s first name. Her mention of “duck neck,” a delicacy in some provinces, is believed to refer to stab wounds on Jiang’s neck. 

As the post infuriated the online community, Liu sent another text message to Jiang Qiulian. “Auntie, I can see that the publicity of your efforts is declining, so let me do you a favor,” Liu wrote. Liu’s messages and comments prompted a torrent of complaints, and Weibo later announced it was closing Liu’s account.  

But not everyone stood with Jiang Qiulan. Some media reports described Jiang Qiulian’s attempts to sue Liu as a “moral witch hunt.” Others argued that Jiang Qiulian should move beyond her daughter’s death to live her own life instead of punishing Liu as a means to address her pain and grief.  

On social media, rational discussion soon gave way to naming and shaming. As Liu also amassed a considerable number of staunch supporters, Jiang Qiulian was subject to constant abuse, questioned over her motives and accused of trying to profit from her daughter’s death. 

Finally in December 2019, a court in Shandong decided to hear Jiang Qiulian’s case, under the principle of personal jurisdiction, which is the power of a country’s court to render a judgment concerning a country’s citizens, wherever they may be. Evidence obtained in Japan must be officially translated and notarized and once notarized, it can be accepted by a court in China. 
Jiang Qiulian sought 2.07 million yuan (US$325,000) from Liu for violating her daughter’s right to life. The same month, Liu legally changed her name to Liu Nuanxi, possibly to escape the online abuse. 

The Verdict 
In the verdict delivered on January 10, the court ruled that in seeking help from Jiang Ge, Liu had a legal responsibility to inform her of the potential danger involved. On the contrary, Liu choose to withhold information about messages sent by Chen threatening that he would “do whatever it takes” if she insisted on breaking up with him. Liu also turned down Jiang Ge’s advice to call the police, claiming that her moving in with Jiang Ge went against rules for overseas students in Japan.  

The court also found that Liu entered Jiang Ge’s apartment and locked the door before Chen started to physically attack Jiang Ge as they argued, depriving Jiang Ge of access to the safety of her own home. For infringing on Jiang Ge’s right to life, the court ordered Liu to compensate Jiang Qiulan 496,000 yuan (US$77,900).  

For the abusive messages and videos Liu sent, the court ordered Liu to pay 200,000 yuan (US$31,400) for mental anguish, a rare ruling in Chinese courts. According to Zhou Chuikun, a lawyer from Beijing-based Yingke Law Firm, the amount in Jiang’s case is the highestever awarded for mental anguish in a Shandong Province court.  

“Jiang Ge offered a helping hand to her compatriot who was in trouble, provided sincere care and help, and was hurt and lost her life. Her selfless act of helping others reflects the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation, which are in line with the core socialist values and public order and good customs and should be praised. She shall be given legal remedies as she was hurt,” the court said.  

“As Jiang Ge’s good friend and the one being rescued, Liu was neither grateful nor offered compassion and comfort to the relatives of the deceased, but instead used inappropriate words to further aggravate the pain of others. Her acts violated common sense and should be condemned. She shall bear civil compensation liability and bear all legal fees,” the court ruled. 

On the relationship of morality and law, a focal point of debate regarding the case,the court declared that “the judicial adjudication should defend the moral bottom line, and promote virtue and righteous deeds.” 

Social Morality 
In an interview with online news site The Paper, Huang Leping, Jiang’s lawyer drew parallels to the landmark Yu vs Xu case from 2006. “If the court refused to hear such a case, it would have dealt a further blow to China’s social morality,” Huang said.  

The case of Peng Yu, a resident of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, has become a cautionary tale. In 2006, he assisted 66-year-old Xu Shoulan who had fallen at a bus stop and broken her femur. Peng, 26 at the time, helped her get to a local hospital and paid a modest medical bill. But after Xu’s family arrived, they accused Peng of causing Xu’s fall and demanded he pay compensation.  

Although he denied her accusation and claimed he was just a good Samaritan, in 2007 a court ordered Peng to pay 45,877 yuan (US$7,275), a large share of the woman’s medical bills. “No one in good conscience would help someone [to pay the bill] unless they felt guilty,” the court said. The decision was met with public outcry, as it appeared to send a message to good doers that they are open to civil lawsuits given the absence of good Samaritan laws in China at the time.  

In a plot twist, Peng admitted in 2012 that he had in fact pushed Xu off the bus and that he had already reached a 10,000 yuan (US$1,577) settlement with Xu.  

Still, the Peng incident had major reverberations for some time. After that, there were cases in which fallen people falsely accused those who helped them of causing their fall. The controversial case was frequently cited as a catalyst for a perceivable decline in social morality. It culminated in outrage over the case of 2-year-old toddler Wang Yue, who was run over twice in a busy market in Foshan, Guangdong Province on October 13, 2011. Neither driver stopped, and according to CCTV camera footage, at least 18 people and cyclists ignored the injured child, stepping around her. Around 10 minutes after the accident, a woman collecting recyclables stopped to help. The child died in hospital several days later.  

In October 2017, China finally enacted a good Samaritan law to ease the reluctance people feel toward helping strangers for fear of legal repercussions, China Daily reported. It would absolve people of civil liabilities if harm came to a victim they tried to help. 

Morality Upheld 
The verdict in Jiang Qiulian’s case was widely hailed by both mainstream media and online communities as having served justice and upheld social morality. According to an opinion piece published by the Global Times, the court’s ruling followed “China’s traditional rule of law culture,” which “in its long history, advocated punishing evil and promoting kindness while prudently implementing laws and regulations.”  

“Even the law is telling everyone that people should never be ungrateful or cruel like Liu Xin,” commented a Sina Weibo post right after the mother won the case.  

According to Ye Lihui, a lawyer from Chongqing-based Baiding Law Firm, although the media focused on the moral arguments of the case, the court’s ruling has a solid legal basis. In its formal ruling, the court cites China’s tort liability law.  

Ye said as Liu is the one who sought help from Jiang Ge, introduced danger to her life and benefited from her help, she is legally obligated to inform Jiang Ge of potential danger and minimize harm Jiang Ge is exposed to. Liu obviously failed to do so, leading to her tort liability, Ye said.  

Following the verdict, Jiang Qiulian told media that while dissatisfied with the compensation, she appreciated the court’s ruling and would donate the entire amount to help girls who have discontinued their education.  

Jiang Qiulian’s fight to protect her daughter is not over. On February 16, Qingdao Intermediate People's Court hold a hearing of Liu Xin's appealed against the ruling. Over the past two years, Jiang Qiulian has filed a number of online defamation lawsuits, both criminal and civil. It is thought there are at least nine lawsuits pending in three provinces and municipalities. 
In the meantime, Jiang Qiulian said that she is preparing to sue Chen Shifeng for compensation upon his expected released from prison in Japan and deportation back to China in 2037. “I don’t have my own life anymore. I will forever be the mother of Jiang Ge,” Jiang told the media at a news conference held in Beijing on January 11.  

“Personally, I think Ms Jiang should move on and live her own life,” said Huang Leping, Jiang’s lawyer. “But I have not gone through what she has, nor have I suffered what she has suffered, and I feel that I am not in the position to tell her what to do.”

Reporters wait for the verdict of Jiang vs Liu, Chengyang District People’s Court, Qingdao, Shandong Province, January 10, 2022