My friend and colleague, Professor Don Clarke, does terrific work over at his Chinese Law Blog and has an extraordinary story this morning. A Chinese Law Professor is in hot water after making a series of statements about rape that truly shock the conscience. Tsinghua Law prof Yi Yanyou comments on the rape case of Li Tianyi, the son of a famous singer who is accused of raping a bar hostess. Yi pointed out that raping a bar hostess is not as bad as a real rape of a nice girl from a nice family. The response was predicable and justified. What is astonishing is that Yi doubled down on his theory of different categories of rape victims when people objected.
The controversy began with a member of the new Red Aristocracy, a class of privileged Chinese who go to the best schools, live in luxury, and run the country under an authoritarian government. Li is the son of a famous singer with the rank of general in the People’s Liberation Army (shown here on Chinese television singing with his Dad). He is an example of this elite class of spoiled and usually protected young Chinese aristocrats and that sense of privilege was evident in his criminal conduct. While Li was too young to drive, he and a friend were speeding around in luxury cars in 2011 when he found himself delayed by a middle aged couple in Beijing. He jumped out of his BMW and his friend jumped out of his Audi to beat the couple in front of witnesses. He was quoted as warning the common Chinese bystanders “Don’t you dare call the police.” Someone didn’t listen. Li was given just a year in jail, but he was prosecuted.
After getting out of jail, however, Li returned to his prior wild ways. Within six months, he was accused of participating in the gang rape of a bar hostess in Beijing. His original lawyers quit. According to this report, his first lawyer simply said “he’s unable to fulfill the client’s demands.” His second lawyer later resigned by saying “there are some reasons that are inconvenient and unable to be spoken”.
That is when Professor Yi Yanyou (易延友), a professor at Tsinghua Law School and the head of its Evidence Law Center, stepped forward to support such a claim. He declared that “raping a bar hostess is less harmful than raping a woman of good family.” When that comment produced an outcry, he doubled down: “It does more harm to rape a woman of good family than to rape a bargirl, a dancing girl, an escort or a prostitute.” Professor Clarke notes that this view goes back a long way in Chinese culture which distinguished rape from “illicit sexual intercourse” depending on how the victim was viewed.
Li reminds me of Harry Thaw, the son of the Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. Coming from one of the wealthiest families in the country, Thaw had a dangerous combination of money and mania. He seemed to love beating and raping woman, particularly prostitutes. His family always protected him. Like Li, it was his mother who appeared at each crime to rescue her son. As for his father, he has reportedly taken ill after being accused of lying about the age of his son to try to get a more lenient sentence. Despite any sign of intelligence, he went to Harvard where his debaucheries and crimes led to his expulsion. This include chasing a cab driver down the road with a shotgun. He eventually graduated up to the murder of renowned architect Stanford White in 1906. Like Li, Thaw lived the life of privilege and viewed ordinary citizens as little more than props for his personal enjoyment.
The criminal record of Li captures perfectly not only the rise of an aristocracy in the heart of Mao’s Communist regime but also the power of the social media even in China where the government continually tries to control and block it. The image of a Chinese playboy racing around Beijing in his BMW and beating drivers in his way captures the class separation in the worker’s paradise.
As for Professor Professor Yi Yanyou, his relativistic view of the law seems to fit perfectly with the times in China. Fortunately, there remain many in China who view the law as advancing something a bit more inspiring than enforcing social conventions and class distinctions.