Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Ethan Couch

Drunk driving, death, wealth, and privilege isn't just an American issue.

On June 15, a drunk 16-year-old Texan named Ethan Couch crashed his Ford F-150 into four people, killing them. It looked like a case ripe for harsh penalties; instead, Couch avoided jail time, getting only 10 years' probation. At his trial, a psychologist called by the defense testified that Couch's spoiled upbringing meant he could not be responsible for his actions, a condition the witness called "affluenza." News of the sentencing on Tuesday, Dec. 10, has caught fire in the United States, and the term "affluenza" has become a touchstone for U.S. citizens outraged by what they view as wealth's triumph over justice. But the problem of privilege is not unique: In fact, the Couch incident is eerily reminiscent of an earlier accident that shocked China. 

In Oct. 2010, in a large city in China's northeastern Hebei province, a 22-year-old named Li Qiming drove drunk and crashed into two pedestrians, killing one. Instead of stopping to help them, Li continued on his way to drop his girlfriend off at university. When students and security guards stopped him on his way back, Li said, "Go ahead and sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang," a senior police official in the district where the crash occurred. 

Like "affluenza," the phrase "My dad is Li Gang" went viral, triggering enormous backlash. Although Chinese authorities tried to censor coverage of the incident, which highlighted China's socioeconomic inequality and official corruption, word nonetheless got out. "My dad is Li Gang" became one of the most popular Chinese web catchphrases of 2010, laced with dark humor.

Couch will likely spend his probation at an expensive rehab facility in California (although his family still faces $20 million in civil suits). But in China, where Communist authorities sometimes direct court rulings to quell public anger, Li was ultimately arrested and, in Jan. 2011, sentenced to six years in jail. That only occurred after months of citizen outrage, and it could have been harsher. But courts justified their leniency by citing Li's cooperation and his family's payment of around $84,000 to victims' families. Li Gang also apologized on television. 

One user on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, noticed that Couch seemed to be faring better than Li, despite killing four to Li's one. "Li Qiming, you crazy boy," he wrote, "you must have been born in the wrong place." 

Fair Use/CCTV

Tea Leaf Nation

China's Frank Underwood?

Communist discipline chief Wang Qishan may be taking the wrong lessons from the TV series 'House of Cards.'

China's top corruption watchdog may be getting a slightly warped view of U.S. politics. A Dec. 5 article from Hong Kong-based Phoenix media quotes an unnamed "knowledgeable" source saying that Wang Qishan, a member of China's Politburo Standing Committee and chief of the Communist Party's internal disciplinary body, has "repeatedly brought up" the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards in recent meetings with other party officials. The show depicts a fictitious majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, played by Kevin Spacey, who relishes destroying the lives and reputations of his political opponents.

Assuming the Phoenix report is accurate -- Chinese media citing anonymous sources have been egregiously wrong before -- Wang may be taking the wrong lesson from the successes of the show's protagonist. The article says that Wang "attached great importance" to the role of whip, which the article notes helps to maintain "party unity." That's surely an attractive proposition to Wang, whom FP named a 2013 Global Thinker on Dec. 9 for trying to fight corruption at the Communist Party's highest levels. The fictitious Underwood no doubt knows how to keep his own (Democratic) party colleagues in check, but he does it through treachery, not the rule of law, and only because it enables him to burnish his career while exacting revenge for perceived slights. 

Wang's far from the only Chinese person following House of Cards. Episodes of the show's first (and thus far only) season have received over 16 million views on Chinese video portal Sohu. Data from that site shows viewers over the past 24 hours mostly hailing from the government or corporate sectors, with a plurality tuning in from the capital, Beijing. One can only hope most of them approach the series as the dark comedy it's meant to be, and not as an instruction manual.

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