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China’s Anguished Debate: Do Its Children Have a Crime Problem?

For nearly two years, Gong Junli has been waiting. Since his 8-year-old daughter, Xinyue, was stabbed multiple times and her body left in a grove of poplar trees in northwestern China, he has imagined her killer finally being brought to justice.

But justice is complicated when the accused is also a child.

The boy who the police say killed Xinyue was 13 years old at the time. As his trial opens on Wednesday, it will try to answer a question gripping Chinese society: How should China deal with young children accused of heinous crimes?

Countries around the world have long struggled to balance punishment and forgiveness for children. But the debate is especially notable in China, where a history of relative leniency toward young offenders stands in stark contrast to the limited rights of adult criminal defendants. For decades, the government has emphasized educating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders, rather than imprisoning them.

Recently, though, a backlash has emerged. Following a spate of high-profile killings allegedly committed by children in recent years, many Chinese have called for the country to come down more harshly. And the government has responded. Xinyue’s killing is one of the first cases known to go to trial since the government lowered the age, to 12 from 14, at which children can be prosecuted on charges of murder and other serious crimes.

Several incidents this year renewed the debate. In January, the police in central China dropped charges against a boy accused of killing a 4-year-old girl by pushing her into a manure tank, because he was under 12 and too young to be prosecuted, Chinese media reported. In March, the police said three 13-year-old boys near the city of Handan, also in central China, dug