China’s Anguished Debate: Do Its Children Have a Crime Problem?

For nearly two years, Gong Junli has been waiting. Since his 8-year-old daughter, Xinyue, was stabbed multiple times and her body left in a grove of poplar trees in northwestern China, he has imagined her killer finally being brought to justice.

But justice is complicated when the accused is also a child.

The boy who the police say killed Xinyue was 13 years old at the time. As his trial opens on Wednesday, it will try to answer a question gripping Chinese society: How should China deal with young children accused of heinous crimes?

Countries around the world have long struggled to balance punishment and forgiveness for children. But the debate is especially notable in China, where a history of relative leniency toward young offenders stands in stark contrast to the limited rights of adult criminal defendants. For decades, the government has emphasized educating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders, rather than imprisoning them.

Recently, though, a backlash has emerged. Following a spate of high-profile killings allegedly committed by children in recent years, many Chinese have called for the country to come down more harshly. And the government has responded. Xinyue’s killing is one of the first cases known to go to trial since the government lowered the age, to 12 from 14, at which children can be prosecuted on charges of murder and other serious crimes.

Several incidents this year renewed the debate. In January, the police in central China dropped charges against a boy accused of killing a 4-year-old girl by pushing her into a manure tank, because he was under 12 and too young to be prosecuted, Chinese media reported. In March, the police said three 13-year-old boys near the city of Handan, also in central China, dug a grave in an abandoned greenhouse, took a classmate there and killed him. The boys were indicted soon after.

On Chinese social media, hashtags related to the Handan killing drew over a billion views in one day, with legal scholars and ordinary social media users alike calling for the perpetrators to be punished severely, even with death. Some suggested that young people were more willing to commit crimes because they knew they could not be legally punished. A professor of criminal law with over 30 million followers on Chinese social media accused those seeking to spare minors from punishment of “moral relativism.”

But others pointed to factors that may have pushed children toward crime, such as parental neglect or poverty. Many in China have worried that poor children in rural areas — who have been the accused in some of the highest-profile cases — are being abandoned as a price of economic progress. Many of those children are described as “left-behind,” because their parents leave them at home while they search for better jobs far away.

As public pressure grew, the Supreme People’s Court last month issued new guidelines on preventing juvenile crime, including by potentially holding guardians responsible for their children’s actions.

It also announced that it had recently sentenced four children between 12 and 14 years old to prison terms ranging from 10 to 15 years, its first acknowledgment of trials in that age group. The court, which said the children had committed unspecified violent offenses, said it sought to show “tolerance without indulgence.”

Mr. Gong said Xinyue was a sweet-tempered child who loved the cartoon “Paw Patrol” and eating mangoes and strawberries. On Sept. 25, 2022, her grandparents were watching her while Mr. Gong, a single father who worked in construction, was on a site more than 100 miles away. That afternoon, Mr. Gong’s father called to say that Xinyue was missing.

Mr. Gong raced back to their village, a poor community of about 40 households nestled amid terraced corn and potato fields in Gansu Province. By the time he arrived, Xinyue’s body had been found.

The police arrested a 13-year-old neighbor. According to an indictment document shared by Mr. Gong, the boy, whom Mr. Gong said he had seen around but didn’t know well, had “developed hatred toward females,” because he was “unhappy with his mother’s disciplinary methods.” The boy had placed a knife in the tree grove, then led Xinyue there and stabbed her in the neck, the indictment said, citing physical evidence, witness testimony and the boy’s confession.

It is unclear whether the boy, who the indictment said was being held at a local jail, has had access to a lawyer. Rights activists have accused Chinese officials of sometimes extracting confessions under pressure. The local police and court declined requests for comment.

Several attempts to reach the boy’s parents were unsuccessful. A Chinese Communist Party-controlled news outlet, Red Star News, reported that it had interviewed his mother, identified as Ms. Chen. Ms. Chen did not say whether she believed her son had killed Xinyue, but she apologized and said she had offered compensation to Mr. Gong’s family.

Ms. Chen also said that her son had been bullied, once being forced by classmates to eat feces. And she acknowledged that she had beaten him over his studies.

After the boy’s arrest, Mr. Gong expected a quick resolution. But for over a year, prosecutors did not charge the boy. Mr. Gong also expected a death sentence, given the wide range of crimes that carry that penalty in China. Upon learning that the law prohibited the execution of minors, he was outraged.

The law claimed to protect minors, he said. But “has the child we lost been protected?”

China has long been considered relatively progressive on juvenile justice, more so than some Western countries, said Anqi Shen, a law professor at Northumbria University in England. International conventions recommend 12 as a minimum age for prosecution. China in the 1970s set its minimum age at 14. (In the United States, the minimum age of criminal responsibility varies by state, with most having no specified lower limit.)

In recent years especially, Beijing has encouraged prosecutors to divert juvenile offenders to educational programs or community service. Studies worldwide show that imprisoning juvenile offenders does little to reduce recidivism. Between 2008 and 2022, the number of juvenile convictions plummeted by nearly 70 percent.

But the alternatives to prison have been riddled with holes. Juvenile correctional facilities and reform schools were often overseen by police officers rather than specially trained staff. Parents could choose not to send their children there.

Officials were even less sure what to do with those under 14. In 2018, a 12-year-old boy who the police said killed his mother was allowed to return to school several days later; the police said they had no choice because they couldn’t bring charges.

The public furor over that case helped push the government to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in 2021, said Zhang Jing, a consultant for the China Association for the Prevention of Juvenile Crime, in Beijing.

It is unclear whether juvenile crime rates are actually rising. The Supreme People’s Court recently announced that it had sentenced 12,000 minors in the first three months of 2024, a year-on-year increase of nearly 80 percent. But that could reflect changes in officials’ decisions to prosecute, rather than an actual increase in offenses by juveniles, experts said. China does not publicize arrest statistics. And social media has helped magnify individual cases.

The debate about punishment has in some ways overshadowed the conversation about prevention — and in particular, how to help the so-called left-behind children involved in some of these crimes.

Studies have found that left-behind children — of whom there are around 70 million — are more likely to be bullied or abused, partly because they may receive less supervision or affection. The three suspects in the Handan case were left-behind, as was the victim, according to state media.

In response, many Chinese have urged parents to return to their villages to raise their children, or suggested parents should be held liable if their children can’t be.

But Professor Zhang, in Beijing, said those calls overlooked the reasons parents separated from their children in the first place. China prohibits most children from attending schools outside their hometowns, making it difficult for workers to bring children with them.

“Punishing the parents is useless. Wouldn’t it be better to change the parents’ environment?” Professor Zhang said. He has also called for more resources for rehabilitation and prevention, such as police officers specially trained to deal with juveniles.

Mr. Gong also acknowledged the impossible choices many parents faced. He himself had often been away for weeks or months at a time, because his village had few jobs.

“Who doesn’t want to give their child or family a better life?” he said. “But everyone has to do that in their own way.”

Now, Mr. Gong has been staying near home, working spare jobs while waiting for the trial.

Xinyue was buried in the grove where she died. Mr. Gong cut down the poplars and planted cherry and peach trees in their place. He imagined Xinyue being reborn and eating from them.

Li You and Siyi Zhao contributed research.

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