China’s high-rise litter problem: struck by dog poo, stuck for justice

Mandy Zuo

The last thing Shanghai man Tony Qian expected while walking with his wife on grassland below the 28-floor residential buildings of their community was to be hit by a falling piece of dog excrement.

And yet, as he looked up to see where the foul missile had come from, he saw a tissue fluttering to the ground which, on closer inspection, was stained with the same muck which had struck him on the shoulder.

Qian was lucky. There have been numerous reports in recent years of critical injuries and deaths caused by people flinging dangerous items – including a bicycle, stroller and even a kitchen knife – from their high-rise windows.

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But his efforts to bring the poo perpetrator to justice went nowhere, even though police identified a household at the top of one of the buildings with a pet dog. The owner denied throwing anything and Qian did not have sufficient evidence.

“I couldn’t take the trouble to do a DNA test on the excrement just for this, could I?” Qian said.

The difficulty of obtaining evidence, as well as low public awareness of the problem, means the situation is unlikely to improve soon, despite a guideline issued by China’s Supreme People’s Court in November urging harsher penalties for high-rise littering, according to legal experts.

The guideline ordered local courts to hand down stricter punishments in such cases, noting that intentional high-rise littering should be “severely punished in accordance with the law”.

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The court’s guideline also listed circumstances in which there should be heavy penalties, generally without probation. These included multiple repeat offending, failure to stop the act when asked to do so, or carrying out the offence in a crowded place.

“The highest judicial body made a point by issuing such a guideline, which could be a positive influence on the hearing of such cases in future,” said Zhang Tao, a lawyer at Hiways Law Firm in Shanghai. Judges who might have been reluctant to make harsh rulings in the past could now be emboldened by the support from the top, he said.

Under China’s criminal law, high-rise litterers face potential life imprisonment or even the death penalty if they inflict serious injury or death, or cause serious damage to public or private property.

In most cases, however, victims of high-rise littering seek monetary compensation either through a private settlement or by initiating a civil case. Between mid-2016 and 2018, courts around the mainland heard 31 criminal cases involving objects falling from tall buildings, half of which caused deaths. Over the same period, more than 1,200 civil cases were heard, of which 30 per cent involved personal injury, according to the research office of the Supreme People’s Court.

Under Chinese civil law, all homeowners living in a building should share responsibility when the litterer cannot be identified but it is rarely enforced, with the last case to be heard in court occurring in 2017. The law has also aroused controversy, with some saying justice is not done that way and others saying it is unfair on innocent residents.

“Pragmatically speaking, a group of people sharing compensation for the injured or the dead is better than having none. So it’s a second-best decision,” Zhang said.

They gave me a bitter smile and said they didn’t have the money.

Tony Qian, Shanghai resident

In addition to the police, Qian and his wife approached the property management company and the municipal government service hotline, for help in finding the perpetrator, but none could assist.

Qian then suggested to the community managers that they install surveillance cameras specifically to watch windows and balconies. “They gave me a bitter smile and said they didn’t have the money,” he said.

There are also privacy concerns, according to Ma Li, a manager at a major property management company in Jiaxing, in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

“To install more surveillance cameras is one solution, but many people think this would infringe their privacy and therefore they are against it,” he said.

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Ma, who has been a property manager for more than a decade, said most high-rise littering consisted of household waste but that people did not take it seriously as long as no injuries were caused.

“We can do nothing but put up more posters warning of the danger, and patrol around the community more frequently,” he said.

Even then, offenders continue to get away with littering – particularly the elderly and minors who are beyond legal punishment.

In July last year, a 10-year-old boy threw a fire extinguisher from the sixth floor of a building in Guiyang, Guizhou province, killing the owner of a grocery store on the ground floor. As a minor, he was not held criminally responsible.

Five months later, in December, a baby stroller fell from a high-rise building in the same community, landing beside a woman, local media reported. Police are still investigating whether the stroller was dropped intentionally.

At Qian’s community complex in Shanghai’s Putuo district, after he reported his case in June, subdistrict office staff began regular daily patrols, using loudspeakers to warn residents against littering. During that time, a woman in her 70s living on the 16th floor was caught throwing waste from her window.

“But she was too old. All they can do is to talk to her, asking her not to do it any more,” said Qian, who said he had also given up on his surveillance camera idea.

“There is plenty of surveillance at crossroads and there are still jaywalkers,” he said. “Without changing people’s attitudes, it won’t work, no matter how many surveillance cameras we install.”

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