Heart of the law

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-01-11 07:41:14

Heart of the law

[Picture by Wang Xiaoying/China Daily]

A 13-year-old was caught red-handed stealing a few chocolate bars from a supermarket in Gansu province on Dec 29.

The proprietor of the business called her mother to pay the penalty.

The mother beat her daughter. Shortly afterward, the girl jumped from a 17-story building.

From whichever angle you look at this, it's a tragedy that could've been avoided.

The subsequent finger pointing shows a society struggling to come to terms with law and morality.

On one end of the spectrum, we have preachers who frame the incident as an-evil-business-owner-vs-a-hungry-girl morality tale.

Some even conjure up Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miserables, who was thrown into jail for filching a loaf of bread.

"When a child steals food, the whole society is guilty," some argue.

The other side of the spectrum belongs naturally to legal purists, who inadvertently belong to the category of Javert, the inspector who relentlessly chases the good guy in the French masterwork. Some go so far to say that the girl "had it coming" because she had violated the law.

Let's call them the bleeding heart and the cold heart.

But the reality could have been less easily subject to broad strokes in stark black and white.

It is true the girl, surnamed Zhao, came from a disenfranchised family whose parents had to work from hand to mouth.

But they are by no means unable to purchase food.

As a matter of fact, over the past three decades, abject poverty to the degree of hunger has eased dramatically across the nation. I can't say it has completely vanished, but the Zhao family doesn't seem to be suffering from it.

To place it in perspective, let's recall another tragedy-arguably a bigger one-when four siblings in Guizhou province killed themselves early last year.

It was not poverty per se but the lack of parental care.

Their mother ran off, and their father was working elsewhere. They had money stashed away when they drank poison.

The same goes for the string of suicides at Foxconn a few years back.

Their salaries were markedly higher than similar jobs elsewhere.

Yet the media saw them more or less as victims of poverty, so the bosses resorted to salary increases.

It takes a lazy mindset to label all social ills "poverty". A society in change is fraught with all kinds of problems. If poverty is the only cause, it'll come to the natural conclusion that raising income is the ultimate solution. Or, to make it simpler, money can buy happiness.

One commentator drew another set of lessons, among which was: "One should never steal food even when hungry."

I don't agree with that, either.

If a child consistently suffers from starvation, the whole society is indeed responsible in some way.

Our web of welfare and philanthropy should have prevented such a thing from happening-given our current level of prosperity.

Had panhandling not been controlled by the underworld, an underage beggar would get food from street stands or most passersby. And that includes supermarket owners or managers, I'm certain.

Chocolate used to be seen as a small luxury in China.

It is not a snack that fills your stomach, the way a bowl of instant noodles does.

Later reports also said the Zhao girl stole not just candy bars but knickknacks that totaled 150 yuan ($24). Having two small girls of my own, I feel I can empathize with what goes through the mind of a child that age.

When shopping with me, they pick stuff that I consider useless, mostly junk food. So I impose a limit, only one item each time.

But I have to watch out in case they put things into their pockets-to fool either me or the checkout counter. It takes a while to drum into them that it is wrong and punishable. But the temptation is always there.

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