BEIJING • A virtuous son or a vigilante murderer: The case of a man who killed a debt collector in defence of his mother has sparked heated debate in China, as an appeals court decides whether to uphold his life sentence.
Social media erupted after Yu Huan, 22, was convicted last month of stabbing to death a man who had beaten and humiliated his mother.
In a country where law enforcement is weak and frequently seen as corrupt, some Web users saw his actions as a proportionate and justified response when police failed to step in. Others have insisted that "the law is the law" and Yu should serve his full term.
The public fury has reached such a fever pitch that the Supreme People's Procuratorate, China's highest investigation agency, has opened a rare probe into the case.
Court documents reveal that between 2014 and 2015 Yu's mother, Madam Su Yinxia, had borrowed more than one million yuan (S$203,000) for her auto parts manufacturing company from a local real estate developer.
Little by little, she told police, she had paid him back 1.5 million yuan. But the 10 per cent monthly interest payments kept piling up, making it difficult for her to get out of her debt.
The developer, Wu Xuezhan - who has reportedly been detained by police for connections to organised crime - sent a gang of loan collectors to her factory in April last year, where, Madam Su says, they began yelling at her and her son.
Yu says a man named Du Zhihao then exposed himself.
A police officer arrived on the scene a short time later, witnesses claim, but rather than stepping in to stop the abuse, he issued a mild warning: "If you're here to settle debts don't fight, don't use your fists - just talk it out." After the officer left, a fracas erupted.
Madam Su insists the debt collectors started the violence. But Yu finished it, pulling out a fruit knife and stabbing four of the men, including Du, who died of blood loss.
The debt collectors deny Madam Su and Yu's claims that they had hit and humiliated them.
Yu was convicted of intentionally causing harm that resulted in death, and was sentenced to life. Wu has since been held for gang-related activities, according to local media.
Much of the discussion on social media has centred on whether the country's rule of law has deteriorated to the extent that children need to step in to protect their parents when the authorities fail to help.
"If the law doesn't bring justice to this kind of person, what is the law for, anyway?" asked a user on the Weibo social network. "If anyone dared do that to my mum, I'd kill them right away," wrote another.
It is a sticky issue for the government, which has strongly promoted filial piety - even passing laws requiring children to visit their parents - as part of a nationwide push to promote traditional values.
In an unusual critique of law enforcement, the nationalistic Global Times on Sunday called for Yu to receive a fair sentence.
"We welcome the Supreme People's Procuratorate's probe into whether Yu was legitimately acting in self-defence and whether the police officers' behaviour can be considered a dereliction of duty," the column said.
Yu's lawyer Yin Qingli said he was hopeful his client would be shown leniency by the Shandong Higher People's Court when it hears the appeal.
"Under the present circumstances, I believe there is a very high chance that Yu Huan's sentence will be changed," the lawyer said.