Should parents pay for sins of their child?

One week after undergraduate Cheng Chieh went on a slashing spree on the Taipei subway, killing four people and injuring 24 others, his parents crept out from the shadows of shame into the public.

The father wore a mask and a cap. The mother shielded her face with a hat. Both sobbed as the father, reading from a piece of paper, denounced their 21-year-old son.

"Even though he is our son, what he did was monstrous, causing unspeakable pain to the victims' families and also to us, his mother and father who love him so much. Our hearts are broken, our hopes turned into ashes."

Someone from the scrum of reporters and members of the public yelled: "Kneel down!"

The middle-aged man sank to his knees, while his wife hit her forehead on the ground repeatedly.

He continued: "The courts should be sentencing him to death. And even though he is our son, this is something he has to face up to.

"We are in so much pain. But I have to say, I hope they will rapidly sentence him, so as to console the families."

"As parents who raised him for 21 years, we must have gone wrong somewhere."

"We hope Cheng Chieh will be a better person in his next life."

It was a surreal and searingly tragic scene.

Whether of their own volition, or pushed by societal pressure, the grief-stricken couple essentially condemned their son to death - the sooner the better. Three weeks on, they have also yet to visit him, according to Taiwanese media.

Their public apology after the subway attack last month mollified some. But in a society that remains girded by traditional Confucian values, the couple continue to be attacked for their perceived failings as parents, despite their son's age and legal status as an adult.

In Taiwan, civil law sets the threshold of adulthood at age 20, but the criminal law sets it even lower - those over 18 are culpable for their actions.

Yet, the furore clearly indicates that Taiwanese society holds parents responsible for way beyond that, raising the question: For how long should parents be accountable for their children's actions?

Cheng had boarded the train at Lungshan Temple station in downtown Taipei, pulled out a knife and begun stabbing people randomly. After his arrest, he told the police he had fantasised about "doing something big" since childhood, Taiwanese media reported.

The lanky university dropout said he found life "empty and not worth living". But lacking the guts to commit suicide, he decided to carry out mass murder so as to receive the death penalty. It felt "nice", he said.

The incident sent shock waves throughout Taiwan, where violent crime is rare, and set off a bout of soul-searching. Questions are being asked about the pressures its youth face, as well as the popularity of violent computer games, to which Cheng was addicted.

But the most heated debate is over the role that family education and parenting - or the lack thereof - played in the tragedy.

The mother of one of the victims, 26-year-old Chang Cheng-han, placed the blame squarely on the parents' shoulders. They, she said after their apology, did not teach him well and society paid the price for it.

"This shows that family education is important," she said.

There is sympathy for this view.

The Chinese saying yang bu jiao, fu zhi guo (a parent is at fault if he simply raises a child but does not impart the right values) has emerged over and over again in the public discourse over the stabbings.

There is speculation over whether Cheng's parents were too busy with their work to pay him sufficient attention.

Netizen Liu Shu-chun wrote: "When children do wrong, the parents are responsible. I cannot accept that Cheng's parents are pitiful and should not be held culpable because he is grown-up. After all, they spent 18 years with him, they should know what he is thinking."

Such sentiments, says Professor Lee Mau-sheng, who specialises in juvenile law and policy at the National Taiwan University, stem from the strong hold that traditional values still exert in Taiwan, compared to other Chinese-majority societies such as mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore - let alone in more individualistic Western places.

"Offspring are seen as their parents' responsibility - and possessions - up till they are way into their adulthood, in their 30s or 40s," he says.

This has been exacerbated by more recent trends including record home prices that force adult Taiwanese to continue living with their parents, some say.

On a broader level, Taiwan is also becoming an increasingly conformist - and competitive - society due to economic pressures and stagnating social mobility. Anyone who does not fit in, or is deemed a loser, is often ostracised.

In an emotional Facebook note, actor Chris Wang You-sheng describes Taiwanese society as one that "respects only 'winners', not 'humans'".

And when people implode - which, as some say, happened in this case - the Taiwanese will hunt for a scapegoat rather than blame themselves, says Prof Lee. And the parents are the closest targets.

"If the parents do not sever their ties from him in such a manner - that is, expressing the hope that he will be swiftly sentenced to death - we Taiwanese will hunt them down, and make them feel like they cannot live in this society."

The island's media, looking for sensational angles, is also blamed for drumming up such sentiments.

This does not mean there are no cooler heads calling for circumspection. Politicians including New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu have called for the public to "leave the parents alone".

As the city's Public Health Commissioner Lin Sheue-rong put it: "They are victims too."

This article was first published on June 8, 2014.
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