Piano student's bloody crime heart-wrenching in China

09:03, April 21, 2011      

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An hour before midnight, on Oct 20, 2010, Yao Jiaxin was returning home in his red Chevrolet sedan when he knocked down Zhang Miao, a 26-year-old woman riding her electric bike in the same direction. He got out of the car and found her trying to memorize his license plate number.

Yao Jiaxin

"For fear that country people may badger me and my family endlessly for compensation", Yao later said, he took a knife and stabbed the woman many times, killing her on the spot.

What brought this case to public attention was the identity of the suspect rather than his act, cruel as it was. Yao, 21, is a promising piano student at Xi'an Music Conservatory.

What made him do it?

Li Meijin, an eminent crime psychologist, surmised on television that Yao's first plunge of the knife was meant to kill but afterwards his action "could be (seen as) a mechanical repetition, as if hitting the piano keys".

This explanation was seen by many as a cover-up for Yao.

On the other hand, noted musician Gao Xiaosong called for a boycott of all Xi'an Music Conservatory graduates because they had submitted a character testimony in Yao's favor. Online, some 80 percent sided with Gao and called for the death penalty for Yao.

Gao questioned in his micro blog: "How can those who do not care for life love music?"

Whether Yao Jiaxin is painted in a sympathetic light or as a villain depends on people's subtle relationship to music. Either they dwell lovingly on his "long fingers" and "slow, meditative playing" or want him dead because he is seen as giving music a bad name.

As I see it, the case has nothing to do with music or music training at all. At best, music, especially classical music, can foster good taste. It is a fallacy that lofty music will purify a person to the point where it will keep him from all evil.

In the fictional world, Hannibal Lecter has impeccable taste in music, yet is capable of unspeakable brutality. In the real world, some Nazi officials were known to be ardent fans of Beethoven and Wagner.

Many people have probed Yao's family background. If Yao came from a rich and powerful family, they would have said this is another version of the "My father is Li Gang" case, in which a young driver attempted to get away from a hit-and-run scene by dropping his powerful father's name. Or, if he hailed from an underprivileged one, people would have cited socio-psychological grounds for his violent outburst.

However, the Yao case does not yield such clear-cut class analysis. While the victim Zhang Miao was a struggling waitress at a local restaurant, Yao, despite owning a new car, is from a family that is neither rich nor poor. It seems his parents' biggest investment in their son - the purchase of the car four months before the incident for his safety because he was giving piano lessons till late at night - turned out to be the worst decision they have made.

The outcry against Yao's schoolmates, who submitted to the court what amounted to a call for clemency, seems misplaced. They have every right to come to the defense of the person they know. As long as they spoke the truth, I do not see anything wrong with it. On the contrary, it is a sign of healthy human relations.

In the old days, when someone was found to have committed an offence, he would receive additional condemnation from his peers, who would willingly or under coercion say nasty things about him, much of it fabricated or exaggerated.

These were shown as evidence that the person was bad from birth and was leading up to the coup de grace all his life.

In that sense, it is refreshing to know that Yao is a quiet, gentle and sensitive soul, not a school bully. Yet he has shown himself capable of cruelty unimaginable by those who know him.

That said, I believe Yao should not receive special leniency from the court. Under the current legal framework, I can think of only four scenarios where he may be spared his life:

If China abolished the death penalty;

if there was still controversy about his culpability;

if Yao was under-aged when he committed the crime;

if he was mentally unstable at the time.

Unfortunately, none of the above seems to apply.

It is almost a cliche to ascribe blame to his parents or to society at large. While the social environment and parenting style certainly play a role in a child's growth, much of what the armchair Freudians have been peddling is vacuously self-righteous.

There are tens of millions of children brought up the same way. I can think of many who might selfishly (and illegally) run away from the scene without helping the poor victim they run over, but it takes a special person to ram a knife, a la Macbeth, into the victim.

I would call what drove Yao to it "character weakness", or more specifically, an astounding inability to tell right from wrong.

As a matter of fact, I'm vaguely familiar with Yao's justification that he killed lest the victim harassed him for compensation. When I returned to China a decade ago after a long sojourn in the US, this was a common refrain on my taxi rides. I would chat up taxi drivers, and if the conversation veered toward traffic accidents, some would tell me that if they knocked down a pedestrian on a dark street, "I'd rather it kills him outright".

The reason? To avoid "extortion".

I was shocked and speechless. Would it be far-fetched to think that Yao had heard similar arguments?

While others who hear this may never go so far as to implement it, Yao probably took it to heart.

At 21, Yao must face the consequences of his action. The law has a clear cutoff age of legal responsibility. The testimony of his peers does not exonerate him in any way. One who claimed to be his schoolmate (later denied by the school authorities) showed support by saying online she would do the same as Yao, unleashing a backlash against the school.

Yao's case is firstly a tragedy of two families. Pleas from the victim's family should override those from the suspect's family and friends. I have sympathy for Yao's parents, but I have more sympathy for Zhang Miao's husband and daughter. Only the latter's mercy should have bearing on the verdict, which may be out Friday.

By Raymond Zhou, China Daily
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