2017-04-20 09:52:48

Court judgments frequently elicit debate in China, usually when the public thinks someone has been sentenced too harshly. So, too, in the case of a central Chinese farmer who picked three wild orchids and was given a three-year suspended jail sentence because the flowers were protected plants.

Local newspaper Henan Legal Daily reported Wednesday that when a farmer in Henan province saw wild orchids on his way back from working in the fields, he picked three flowers and ended up in front of a judge.

A county court recently sentenced the man, surnamed Qin, to a suspended three-year jail sentence and ordered him to pay a 3,000-yuan ($435) fine for the crime of illegally picking nationally protected plants.

Qin had earlier been detained for seven days after forestry police found out about his orchid-picking. But when an official at the Lushi County procuratorate, the government department that serves as both investigator and prosecutor, realized that Qin’s actions constituted a breach of criminal law, they advised police to open a legal case against him.

Yang Miaowei, a section head at the Lushi County procuratorate, told the Henan Legal Daily that China protects its environment with rigid laws, and that people with little legal awareness can easily violate the law by accident. The realization that picking three flowers can constitute a crime had a created “an enormous shock in Qin’s thinking,” the article said, and the event has given the community “a profound lesson in the rule of law.”

The article was read widely online and led to indignant reactions from both net users and media arguing that the authorities had come down too hard on the farmer. Party newspaper Guangming Daily published a commentary on its website that called Qin’s case a “cruel lesson in legal awareness.”

Luo Xiang, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, wrote an essay on the case in which he argued that expecting people to be aware of the law in all situations is unrealistic. “Even law students don’t know all the laws,” Luo wrote.

Another article published on Rednet, a news portal run by a local Party branch and government, compared Qin’s case to that of a woman who ran a shooting game stall and was convicted for illegal possession of firearms. In both cases, the suspects were unaware that what they were doing was illegal. The author of the article argued that these cases demonstrate the need for the government to better educate citizens about the law. “In the end, what we want is not to punish people like Qin, but to protect plants like the orchid,” the article said.

Party tabloid Global Times, however, had a different take on the incident. In a post on its Weibo microblog, it said that the first report on the case had misled readers and other media outlets. The post asserted that, contrary to the Henan Legal Daily’s coverage, Qin had picked the flowers intentionally. 

Taking a few flowers home to sell is a common practice in the area, and the most exquisite orchids reportedly sell for more than 10,000 yuan, the Global Times post said. The article also pointed out that two other people were convicted by the same court around the same time and for the same crime. The article praised the court for cracking down on such behavior. “The flower traffickers have all been scared away,” it said.

This article has been updated to reflect recent developments.

Editors: David Paulk and Jessica Levine.