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Opinion / Xin Zhiming

A life lost for a few bars of chocolates

By Xin Zhiming (chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2016-01-05 10:10

A life lost for a few bars of chocolates

A shop assistant arranges chocolate products in a supermarket in Nanchang, Jiangxi province.[Photo provided to China Daily]

A 12-year-old girl, who was detained by a convenience store's managers in Yongchang county of Northwest China's Gansu province for allegedly stealing some chocolate bars, committed suicide by jumping from a high-rise building. While stealing is an offense, the tragedy that led to mass protests in Yongchang last week should prompt a rethink on the practice of shop-owners detaining alleged thieves and demanding high fines.

Although media reports give different details of the Yongchang incident, they all say the girl was detained by the store managers for some time. We do not know whether she was subjected to other forms of humiliation as well.

Over the years, many media reports have described how store and supermarket managers demand fines of up to ten times the value of the stolen goods — a standard that all supermarket and store managers across the country seem to follow. If the "thieves" cannot pay the amount, they are generally detained by the stores' security guards. But in most cases, the alleged thieves pay some money — often not as high as ten times the value of the stolen goods — to settle the dispute without the involvement of police.

For many people, theft is a morally unacceptable act and, therefore, they do not think there is anything wrong with such detentions. But from a legal point of view, no store has the authority to detain alleged thieves.

According to China's laws, only police can impose fines on or detain people for theft, irrespective of whether the case is minor or major. In other words, only police are empowered to detain or impose fines on wrongdoers.

In reality, however, since the alleged thieves are often less privileged members of society, they are unaware of their legal rights. As a result, they often succumb to the intimidation by the stores' security guards and pay the demanded money.

Moreover, since stealing is considered a shameful act, wrongdoers are afraid of police intervention, because the news could then spread to their relatives and employers and they might end up being labeled a thief by neighbors and/or colleagues. And some shops have taken advantage of these possibilities to squeeze money out of alleged thieves.

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