Pei-Yu Wei is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On February 17, 2016, three Chinese “parachute kids” were sentenced to prison after bullying their classmate last March in Rowland Heights, California. Yunyao “Helen” Zhai, Xinlei “John” Zhang, and Yuhan “Coco” Yang, were part of a group of twelve who kidnapped and assaulted a classmate over unsettled restaurant bills and arguments over a boy. After luring the victim to meet with them, the bullies took her to a park where they repeatedly beat her, kicked her with high-heels, and burned her with cigarette butts. Zhai, Zhang, and Yang were arrested, while the rest of the group fled, some reportedly back to China. Initially charged with torture, kidnapping, and assault, all three of the defendants plead no contest to the kidnapping and assault charges. In return, the torture charge was dropped. Zhai, Yang, and Zhang were sentenced to thirteen, ten, and six years, respectively, and will be immediately deported after completing their terms.
The high schoolers’ actions sparked a wide debate in China, which has been dominated by the issue of the lack of parental supervision for “parachute kids,” young international students who come to the United States to study without their families. Online discussions have also identified deeper legal and cultural differences, which may have contributed to the impunity with which the students carried out the attack, and the ways that their parents later attempted to smooth over the incident. In fact, such gaps in understanding have become more apparent among Chinese students studying in the United States and their families.
With its large population and growing middle class, China has sent an increasing number of “parachute kids” in recent years, especially in the fifteen-nineteen year age group. As of 2013, the number of Chinese students attending U.S. high schools exceeded 23,000. Many students seek to escape the ultra-competitive national collegiate examination in China, to receive a more well-rounded and flexible education, or to get a leg-up in applying to American colleges.
While most “parachute kids” have gone on to succeed, many have encountered challenges. At a young age, the students face culture shocks, language barriers, and loneliness. Although many of the students live with host families, the hosts often only provide room and board, and students are left isolated. These factors, coupled with the daunting problem of handling one’s own free time and copious amounts of spending money sent by guilty parents, often cause children to withdraw from classmates and teachers, or to lash out.
At the same time, bullying incidents similar to or more severe than that in Rowland Heights have become increasingly common in China itself. In 2014, forty-three extreme bullying cases were exposed by the Chinese media. The number of cases reached twenty-six in the first three months of 2015. In June 2015, Huang Tanghong, a senior in Fujian province, was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for a ruptured spleen. While the case drew widespread attention in China and the authorities took the bullies into custody, the perpetrators were ultimately released when their parents paid Huang’s family approximately $33,000 in compensation. Huang’s plight was not an isolated case. In fact, incidents of extreme bullying are often settled out-of-court through monetary compensation and interventions from educational authorities. Expulsions are rare, let alone jail time. Under China’s current Child Protection Law, those between the ages of fourteen and sixteen can only be subject to criminal punishment for committing heinous crimes, namely rape and murder. All these factors can lead to significant cultural misunderstandings.
The defendants in the Rowland Heights case asked the case’s detective, “What’s the big deal? It happens in China all the time.” The father of one of the defendants also attempted to bribe the victim to “settle” the matter. He was later arrested. Another defendant’s father told Xinhua that his knowledge of the United States was like a “blank sheet of paper” and that he didn’t understand legal and cultural differences between the two countries. Netizens in China followed the case avidly, commenting on the severity of the consequences the students face and reflecting on the lack of institutional and legal mechanisms to respond to and prevent bullying in China. Most are pleased with the outcome. One commentator noted, “This group ignores the laws, and when they are faced with dire consequences they play innocent and say they don’t understand U.S. laws. They deserve to be imprisoned. When I read the report I felt extremely happy and that justice has been served. Actually, this kind of thing happens in China too, but the ways that they are dealt with make people feel unsatisfied.” Another speculated that had the incident happened in China, the defenders might not have faced the consequences because of their family backgrounds, writing, “Apparently one of the assailants’ mother is the leader of a tobacco company, and his father heads up a Shanghai police department. Please imagine: if this torture case had happened in China, what would happen?” Some also highlighted the differences in norms between the two nations. One commented, “A parent [of the offenders] who’s as helpful as a god even attempted bribery and got arrested…. But when things happen and the parents’ first thought is to use money to ‘settle,’ then we can see how deeply rooted this kind of thought is in China.”
While this extreme bullying case drew widespread attention, these students were not alone in their misperception of regulations and laws in the United States. University of Iowa student, Hanxiang Ni, was expelled in February 2016 and had his student visa revoked after posting online, “If I do not get good grades after studying so hard, I will make professors experience the fear of Gang Lu” just days after he received permits to obtain and carry a gun. Lu was a Chinese doctoral student at the same university who fatally shot four people and himself in 1991. On Weibo, Ni claimed that his message was meant as a joke that “any normal person would understand as such,” and that he “wrote in Chinese deliberately” because he “didn’t want any misunderstandings to arise.” Both Ni and his father thought the school was overreacting, with the latter saying they are seeking legal options. Similarly, students who pay consultants to fill out their U.S. college applications, ghostwrite their essays, and compose teachers’ recommendation letters are sometimes unaware that this could be considered fraudulent or get them expelled.
As an increasing number of young Chinese students arrive in the United States to study, the need for understanding cultural and legal differences between the two societies must be addressed. Providing students with a basic education on the laws of the United States, and helping them understand what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable is a good place to start. Currently, a number of colleges in the United States include talks from law enforcement officials in their orientation programs. Furthermore, resources detailing things such as when to call the police, regulations on alcohol and drugs, and driving policies can be found on school websites. These can be easily extended to cover topics that students may not have encountered before, such as firearms, and actions that may result in more severe consequences, such as bullying or posting threats as “jokes” on the internet. It is also crucial for Chinese parents and students to familiarize themselves with, if not at least have a cursory understanding of, the law. After all, the bulk of the responsibility to abide by the law rests with the students and their families. Parents must consider whether their kids will be able to responsibly use their sudden freedom. As all three of the defendants in this case noted, too much freedom and no parental supervision can be a “formula for disaster.”