Li Tianyi, son of a famous Chinese general, is currently being tried in a case of alleged gang rape along with four of his friends. Referring to this ongoing case, Yi Yanyou, a law professor at Tsinghua University, declared on his microblog account last week: “Even if it was rape, the harm of raping a bar hostess is less than raping a woman from a good family.”
After widespread criticism in the media and on the Internet, Yi deleted the statement and openly apologized for his words.
BEIJING - When I first read Yi’s “raping rhetoric,” I knew right away that he would be subject to severe criticism for three very different but related reasons. First, his statement was contrary to the basic spirit that “everybody is equal before the law." Second, it risks irritating the public who already have an appalling impression of this notorious princeling, Li Tianyi, who a year ago was caught driving a BMW without a license and assaulted a couple in a dispute over a traffic incident. Third, from the perspective of a law professor, such an expression fails to comply with basic academic standards.
However, I do not agree with some of the criticisms leveled at Yi, such as: he "lacks compassion for ordinary people" and "speaks only for his vested interests." Last year, I witnessed in person Yi's courage and professionalism when he provided aid to migrant workers defending their rights in Jiangsu Province. Besides, after realizing his own error he frankly apologized for causing the dismay and stressed that he in no way benefits from this affair.
In my view, it's most likely that Yi was instead clumsy in his discourse and tried to explain on the Internet in just 140 Chinese characters a criminal law issue that is quite complex. Alas, his loose language caused an uproar.
From reading his original text, what Yi may have meant was that compared with a typical rape by force, if the bar girl's behavior gave misleading messages, the criminal liability of the accused can be moderately reduced based on the victim's role. The fact that Yi replaced the concept of "extenuating circumstances" with the term "less harmful" is what triggered the controversy.
I oppose Yi's formulation, but I do not like the way his critics sought to decimate him and his character. Throughout this wave of polemic, a few dared to sympathize with Yi, but they too were roundly attacked.
Meanwhile the besiegers formed a strong and united front -- splendid in their moral superiority in spite of some disinformation. There is a huge gap between the two camps.
While Yi being forced to correct his improper expression was reassuring, the affair viewed in a much wider social context was not positive at all.
Let's be clear: every woman, bar hostess or otherwise, has basic rights that should not be infringed upon. Anyone with a bit of common sense knows this, a fortiori a law professor from a prestigious university.
Nevertheless, some see the affair as a question of defending Yi's rights to free speech and academic freedom in the face of mass cries to defend a victim's dignity.
Thus, there comes the divide and tension between the scholars and the public -- the freedom of academic speech, based on a superiority of knowledge vs. the public sentiment, based on a simple truth.
In a normal social context, a scholar's unusual opinion is there to attract attention and encourage the public to listen to his explanations. This is precisely what society needs in order to break with common prejudices and promote progress and civilization.
Unfortunately, in China, because far too often people hear falsehoods from scholars -- such as "melamine-tainted milk is harmless to humans..." -- they lose their credibility as independent voices. These days in China, titles such as professor or academic have become terms almost as derogatory as Xiao-jie (literally meaning young lady, but associated in practice with prostitutes in mainland China) or comrade (meaning a homosexual).
Facing such a social gap, we should not direct all the blame at the professor who speaks out, but look at it from a deeper social-political context. Because for too long Chinese society has faced political domination, scholars have been afraid or reluctant to speak independently. Even when they speak out, they are tied down by too many interests. Over time, this group of people, who should have originally been the social conscience of society, have become the least trusted of all people.
Thus, while we can agree that Yi's opinion on the rape case is indeed wrong, this endless lambasting and attempts to castigate him should have stopped after he deleted his post and apologized. Only when a society is capable of tolerating plurality of opinions, and even erroneous statements, can it offer its people hope.