Lowering the age of criminal responsibility: How harm-focused public discourse overrode the official narrative in China
Following a few high-profile cases, China lowered the age of criminal responsibility (ACR) from 14 to 12. From 1 March 2021, children aged 12 and 13 will be prosecuted if they commit the crime of murder or serious assault. Is this another cliché story of media-induced fears leading to punitiveness? Text analysis gives a complicated answer. By comparing the official and commercial news reports on ACR between 2017 and 2020, the author finds that official news in China was much more moderate than commercial news. While the former emphasised ‘prevention’, ‘correction’, and ‘specialised guidance’, the latter stressed ‘harm’, ‘victim’ and ‘responsibility’. By analysing 5,695 posts on social media, the author finds that Chinese netizens were more susceptible to the harm-focused stories in commercial news. They tended to retell these stories in more sensational language (‘cruel’, ‘scum’, ‘death penalty’), which radicalised the public discourse. In contrast, official news was heavily criticised. Netizens saw the government’s reluctance to lower the ACR as the evidence of corruption, social polarisation and class oppression. The reference to international conventions was also dismissed by angry nationalists. To secure public legitimacy, the Party changed its stance. Without a well-prepared penal system, this decision might cause more harm.