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2017-12-12 04:41:43 Commentary

On Monday, a court in Tokyo heard the case of Jiang Ge, a 24-year-old graduate student from eastern China’s Shandong province who was stabbed to death on the doorstep of her apartment while studying abroad last year. Chen Shifeng, the ex-boyfriend of Jiang’s roommate, Liu Xin, stands accused of murder. A verdict is expected on Dec. 20.

Jiang’s death incited widespread public anger in China. Yet perplexingly, most of this sentiment is not directed toward Chen, the Chinese man who was studying in Tokyo alongside the two women and who reportedly harassed Liu for days before killing her roommate. Instead, netizens have trained their sights on Liu, who locked the door to her room while Jiang went out to the porch to confront Chen.

Liu has been lambasted in media reports and online chatrooms for not coming to Jiang’s aid as she was brutally attacked. In the year since Jiang’s death, Liu did not reach out to the mother of the deceased, Jiang Qiulian, who has called for her daughter’s murderer to receive the death penalty. In a viral video originally shared online by the Beijing News, Jiang Qiulian claimed that Liu is “guilty” of not coming to her daughter’s aid and rejected her “insincere” apology when Liu finally met her face-to-face on Nov. 12.

The incident suggests that Liu’s behavior was a moral failing, but not one that rises to the level of a legal case. Her actions are regrettable, but a lack of bravery should not subject an individual to such vitriol, let alone criminal prosecution. China’s massed ranks of incensed keyboard-bashers need to seriously ask themselves whether they would have acted differently if they had been in Liu’s situation.

Moral censure must always be aimed at oneself first. I aspire to be a brave person, but I don’t know if I actually am.

To me, the objective of setting moral standards is first and foremost to restrain one’s own actions; control of others is secondary. Moral censure must always be aimed at oneself first. I aspire to be a brave person, but I don’t know if I actually am. If I found myself in real danger, I wonder if I’d really do what I say I’d do when the question is put to me hypothetically. To be honest, I would rather never find out, as to do so would mean I would no longer feel secure in my imagined courage. Passing judgment on the moral character of others comes naturally too, since it confirms our own sense of superiority and lets us divert attention away from our own moral failings.

In his famous fairy tale for adults, “The Shadow,” Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen told the story of a writer and his shadow. The writer wanted to know more about the neighbor whose balcony was opposite his own. The longer he went without seeing this person, the more he wanted to sneak a glimpse of them. One day, when the writer was standing in front of his fire, he noticed that his shadow was projected on the wall of the house across the street. At his master’s urging, the shadow stole into the neighbor’s apartment, where it saw everything. The next day, when the author awoke, he found that his shadow had left him. Later, it returned, only to kill its former master and take his place. The moral of the story is: We all have a dark side. If we allow it to grow unchecked, sooner or later, it will come back to haunt us.

We must always be on guard for the kind of darkness that resides in human hearts. The very premise of our legal systems is that humans are fallible. If we abandon this presumption and choose to believe humans are inherently good, then there would be no need to draw up laws to curb human behavior. Ample evidence, much of it from China’s own modern history, reveals the excessive cruelty that occurs when we abandon faith in our legal system and resort to mob rule.

This is also why a majority of countries do not have laws requiring citizens to intervene in matters of life or death. The law merely represents the absolute lowest moral standard to which citizens are held. I wish we were all capable of being heroes. But seeing that we’re not, I’m glad that our laws don’t yet expect us to rush headlong into situations where we may find out, gruesomely, the limits of our own bravery.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

(Jiang Qiulian, the mother of the murdered Jiang Ge, gives a press conference at a public hall in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan, Dec.10, 2017. Yao Wei/VCG)