Back in 2010, I did a blog post on debt hostages in China, highlighting the incredible situation of a government-run hospital holding a couple’s baby hostage until they paid their bill, with the press report [Chinese | English] even using quotation marks around the word “hostage” and quoting a local lawyer who could not bring himself to call the action anything worse than “inappropriate.” In other words, authorities, including the police, view the taking of debt hostages as understandable, and at worst as a kind of regrettable overreaction that should be resolved with everyone just calming down and negotiating.
Dan Harris at the China Law Blog has also written a number of posts about this.
I was reminded of all this when I recently ran across a good piece in Foreign Policy on this subject that’s more or less a summary of what we’re seeing out there. One alarming element of this piece that I don’t think Dan or I have highlighted (or perhaps even known) before is that Chinese legal authorities (I originally wrote “courts”, but of course it’s not really courts that make the key decisions in these cases) appear to be very unforgiving of self-defense measures taken by people who are actually being held against their will by force. In the case of Yu Huan (于欢), it is undisputed that a young man and his mother were being held in a room by thugs demanding repayment of a loan, and not allowed to leave. The police came, looked at the situation, and then left without doing anything. The young man tried to leave, was blocked from doing so, and then stabbed several of the thugs in attempting to get past them. One of the thugs later died of his wounds.* The young man was originally sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, but after a popular outcry the sentence was reduced to five years’ imprisonment.
In other words, if you’re being held unlawfully against your will, you must be extremely careful in what you do to free yourself, even after the state, with its monopoly on the use of force, has declined to assist you.
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* It’s worth noting that the thug in this case, a man named Du Zhihao, was such a tough guy that even after being fatally stabbed, he managed not only to drive himself to the hospital (and not even the nearest one at that), but still had energy left to get into an argument with the security guard at the hospital entrance. Both these elements told in the defendant’s favor on appeal.