By now everyone has seen the bickering. Everyone has seen the tweets. If not, I can catch you up quickly so we can get to the meat of it all. UCLA basketball players shoplift in China. They get caught. They come home. President Trump wants recognition. The players thank Trump. A player’s dad minimizes Trump’s role. Trump gets mad.
Although America’s criminal justice system needs major reforming, China needs more. Because of China’s unjust, nearly guaranteed conviction system, the quick resolution of the UCLA players’ case was a shock to many. Who deserves the praise?
Quick answer: There’s no way to know without asking those Chinese police officers and Xi Jinping himself. Let’s explore a similar scenario: Imagine that you are detained and questioned for the first time in New York but your dad knows the mayor. He calls in a favor and so does your influential teacher. Your teacher even gets you a great lawyer. Then, you’re released on probation with no jail time.
Maybe there was one person who stood out more to the police. Maybe it was a collective effort. Or maybe they would have let you go anyway because of the circumstances. How could we know what influenced the police’s decision without asking them directly? We don’t know for sure what made China release the players, but we can speculate. So let’s take a look at what occurred and China’s criminal laws.
Shoplifting in China
Jeremy Daum of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School gave an amazing breakdown of the law:
In China, shoplifting can be either a crime or an administrative violation.
Administrative violations include a lot of conduct that would be considered misdemeanor crimes in the US and are punishable by warnings, fines, or detention of up to 15 days.
Whether shoplifting is a crime or a violation largely depends on the value of the allegedly stolen goods: generally speaking at least 1,000 RMB ($150) needs to have been stolen for the crime to apply，although the number of thefts and other aggravating factors are also relevant.
The distinction between administrative and criminal offenses is important because criminal offenses are heard by the courts and subject to the Criminal Procedure Law while the police can directly consider and punish violations.
The administrative violation version of theft is punishable by 5-15 days detention depending on the seriousness and amount in question. [article 49 of Public Safety Administrative Punishments Law]
The criminal version is punishable by controlled release (a type of probation), 1-6 months detention in a jail, or imprisonment of between 6 months-10 years or 10 months or higher in rare situations. [Article 264 of the Criminal Law].
Returning the goods, expressing remorse, admitting guilt and accepting fault and punishment can all reduce the sentence; and are important mitigating factors, especially for first-time offenders.
During their press release, the players admitted to stealing the merchandise. They were released on bail of $2,200 with the condition that they surrender their passports. This means the students likely faced the criminal version of shoplifting and were punished by controlled release. This is similar to probation and a plea deal in the U.S.
Did Trump influence this decision? Maybe.
John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, stated that Trump told China’s president, Xi Jinping, “Do you know anything about these knuckleheads that got caught stealing? It’s not too serious. We’d love to see this taken care of in an expeditious way.” The Chinese government didn’t confirm that Xi had done anything to intervene. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said “I am not aware of the details, but I believe the Chinese police would have handled the case in strict accordance with the law,” at a news conference on Wednesday when asked if Xi had intervened.
Athletic Director Dan Guerrero thanked President Trump but also said that UCLA found legal representation for the players and escorted them through the process. After obtaining permission to leave, the school got the young men on a flight to Los Angeles. Guerrero said the school “provided the necessary resources to ensure the timely release and safe return of the UCLA athletes.”
Again, we do not know what influenced the decision to release the players. Maybe it was a joint effort or maybe President Trump gave it the push it needed. Either way, I’m sure the boys are grateful. Live and learn everybody. Peace and Love.