When the parents of a Chinese national accused of sexually assaulting a woman in her Iowa City apartment flew to town in April to persuade the victim to drop the charges, they were arrested.
Xuefan Tang, 58, and Li Qiao, 49, were charged with tampering with a witness after police said they offered money to get their son, former University of Iowa student Peng Tang, out of trouble. But charges against the parents were dropped after investigators determined the couple was acting according to the cultural norms with which they were familiar.
“I believe that Mr. Tang’s parents were doing what they believed was right to help their son, but did not understand the repercussions of such behavior under Iowa law,” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said in a statement at the time.
Lyness still pursued charges against Tang, who agreed to a plea deal this week that could send him to prison for up to 17 years. Tang, 22, pleaded guilty on Monday to extortion and solicitation to commit witness tampering, and he entered an Alford plea for third-degree sexual abuse — meaning he pleaded guilty while maintaining his innocence.
Tang’s case — particularly his parents’ involvement — is one example of how cultural differences in criminal justice systems can impact legal cases here in Iowa. But it’s not the only example, Lyness said.
“We certainly have had cases with students from different countries where the fact that we would charge someone with domestic abuse for assaulting their wife — they were astounded by that because it’s not something that happens in their country,” she said.
Cultural differences in criminal justice systems also can affect victims, Lyness said.
“It might have an impact on how cooperative the victim is,” she said. “I’ve certainly had victims tell me this is acceptable in my country, to which I will point out that no one likes to be beaten. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in.”
The United States’ criminal justice system is unique from those in most other countries, including nations in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Latin America, said John C. Reitz, a UI law professor who researches international and comparative law.
Juries, for example, are uncommon outside of this country because they limit government power, he said. And in the United States, unlike some countries, Americans are empowered by the legal system and the pursuit of justice.
“We have the impression and expectation that (the law) will be enforced,” Reitz said. “Law is used to change society or to change the behavior of people who have power.”
One nation with extreme contrasts to the U.S. justice system is China, which is transitioning from an authoritarian system run by the party to one more centered on the rule of law, Reitz said.
“There are a lot of reform movements swirling in China,” he said. “But they still have a legal system that represents China’s system.”
For example, China has good laws in place that could hold companies liable for selling harmful products. But, Reitz said, the Chinese government has made it a habit of pressuring people who bring lawsuits by punishing them.
And although bribing victims in criminal cases is against Chinese law, he said, it’s not a law that is strictly enforced. So, when Tang’s parents came to the United States, Reitz said, “I’m sure they were operating in good faith.”
“It’s a plausible defense that they were just doing what they thought was good for their son,” he said.
Reitz conceded, however, that more sexual crimes in China go unpunished. Marital rape, in fact, is not against the law there, and that mindset might affect a person when they move to the United States.
For example, when authorities last April arrested 17 people in connection with a prostitution sting — including Chinese national Changya Chen — he told The Gazette that he didn’t understand what was happening.
“I didn’t know that it was a bad thing and it was a crime,” said Chen, a graduate research assistant who moved to Iowa from China in 2011. “I thought it was a date thing. I didn’t know how this happened.”
The prostitution charge against Chen was dismissed in January, and he instead pleaded guilty to false report of an indictable crime and was sentenced to one year probation.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor in Los Angeles, Calif., said that in her experience prosecuting cases involving Chinese nationals, “I don’t think they realize where they cross the line.”
“There are certainly tremendous cultural differences between the Chinese justice system and ours,” she said, adding that there “is the sort of idea that you can bribe or pay to influence your way out of a prosecution.”
Tang, like his parents, also was accused of trying to persuade his accuser to change her story. According to police, Tang sent a letter to a friend from jail asking that person to tell the victim that he “will be in jail for the rest of his life, and if she does drop the charge, he can promise her anything.”
County Attorney Lyness said her office came to a plea agreement in Tang’s case because “it was a good resolution” and not because of cultural differences.
Still, once Tang serves his time in a U.S. prison, he’ll almost certainly be deported, Lyness said. Tang, who is no longer a UI student, has been in violation of his immigration status for more than a year.
“I don’t think he has any basis for staying here,” she said.