Parents of kidnapping suspect released, bringing to light cultural differences

BY BETH BRATSOS | APRIL 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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The recent arrest of a Chinese national in Iowa City has sparked serious debate among the Chinese community both here and abroad.

Peng Tang, 21, 923 E. College St. No. 8, allegedly kidnapped and assaulted a woman while viewing her apartment for a potential sublease. His parents, Xuefan Tang, 57, and Li Qiao, 49, arrived in town and, according to police records, attempted to bribe the victim into changing her story.

The parents were charged with tampering with a witness on April 11.

But charges against the parents have since been dropped. Peng Tang also allegedly attempted to contact the victim, and he is charged with first-degree kidnapping and tampering with a witness.

Xuefan Tang indicated in an application for a public defender his son was a student at the University of Iowa. UI registrar officials said Peng Tang was a former UI student during the 2009-2010 academic year, though they could not release Tang's reason for withdrawal.

Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness said she dismissed the tampering with a witness charges against Peng Tang's parents citing "cultural differences" in a statement Wednesday.

Lyness said she believed Xuefan Tang and Qiao did not understand the consequences of such behavior under Iowa law.

Johnson County Jail officials said Xuefan Tang and Qiao were released Wednesday.

"When people here talk about bribery, there is a very clear sense what it is. In China … it is often very blurred," said Wenfang Tang, a University of Iowa political-science and international-studies professor not related to the family in custody. "The differences between informal and impersonal ties — these things are not very clear in China."

Wenfang Tang researches public opinion and political change in contemporary China. He said the distinction between what is illegal and what is legal is not well understood in China, which could adversely affect Chinese natives' ability to understand the American legal system.

For example, Xuefan Tang and Qiao's lack of understanding for legal procedure may have caused their attempt to contact the victim to be seen as bribery, he noted, when the parents may have only wanted to settle out of court with a plea bargain — which can be perfectly legal in the United States, he said.

He said business can be informal in China, unlike the formal procedures seen in the U.S. And cultural differences are only part of the equation, he added.

 "[It] is the difference of social economic development," he said. "Things often times, institutions particularly… are not well developed [in China]. That's why people often times have to go through informal channels."

Wenfang Tang said if a similar case occurred in China, the person charged with bribery probably could have gotten away with it.

 Some Chinese social-media websites written in Chinese reflect the views of Chinese citizens regarding Tang's case. When translated, citizens are cited as saying things like "his behavior brings shame on China" and "this is Chinese rich people's bad habits."

UI journalism lecturer Lisa Weaver learned about Chinese culture after she lived there for eight years. She thinks Chinese commentators are "sort of venting" about perceptions of corruption in the country.

"I think [the Chinese commentary] says more about China than it does about this particular case," she said. "… [Bribery] does happen in China, and there is a lot of sensitivity in using money and influence. Chinese readers are responding to real high-level politics."

Hu Binchen, police counselor of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington D.C., said authorities in China are expected to properly enforce the law.

 "I can assure you that if there is a crime, no matter which kind of form, bribery or [something else]… the authority of China will, of course, deal with it," he said.

Binchen said the Consulate-General Office in Chicago provides assistance and protection for Chinese citizens in trouble with U.S. law. Officials from the Consulate-General did not respond Wednesday.

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