By Erik Nilsson
The stranger who knocked on our door dropped to her knees, sobbed and begged.
She pleaded for mercy.
We'd already forgiven, before we even knew she existed.
The woman convulsed with remorse and shame - none of which was because of her wrongdoing.
We offered leniency to her brother.
He'd recently stolen about $3,000 from us.
The food deliveryman had pilfered my wife's wallet and emptied her spending account.
Then, the cops caught him.
The night of the incident, I'd gone to the back of the apartment to get my wallet to pay for the meal he'd brought at about 3:30 am (I was finishing work at home). Her purse dangled from the coat rack, staring him in the face.
He was alone and tempted. Cold and poor.
And young - just 20.
The police were exceptionally professional and apprehended him within two weeks.
While China is very safe - a point most foreigners appreciatively marvel at - thefts spike before Spring Festival.
The cops told us he'll likely get a reduced sentence since he cooperated and returned our money.
His sister claims to have left her family's remote village in Sichuan province and hopped a train across the country when she got the news.
She says she slept outside in winter for days while tracking us down, without many clues.
Now, she was playing detective.
She eventually located our apartment.
She'd never seen a foreigner before.
(Knock! Knock! Knock!)
At first, my wife had no inkling who she was or why she'd come.
Carol just knew she was hysterical.
And in our home.
The devoted sibling presented a note.
She pointed out it's her brother's first such transgression.
We believe in forgiveness - at least for nonviolent first offences - both in justice systems and personally.
Nobody is without need for exoneration for misdeeds - perhaps not criminal - committed in the totalities of our existences.
Even the best of us typically don't require second chances.
We need third, fourth, fifth, sixth chances.
Sometimes more. Hopefully, fewer.
The woman never did anything to deserve the punishment their family, too, faces - indignity, stigma and heartbreak.
That's not to mention the absence of a loved one.
Through working as a volunteer for a group that serves children of convicts in China for several years, I've come to realize justice isn't only about perpetrators but also about their families.
I hadn't given much thought to convicts' kids before that. And I hadn't thought much about offenders' siblings until that woman knocked on our door.
We not only wrote a letter asking the court for leniency but also truly wish he can - and will - turn his life around.
As we move into 2017, we hope this will be a year in which the world embraces more compassion, forgiveness and understanding.
That is, for people who are innocent - and who sometimes aren't.
There was no violence.
We got the money back.
And we wish him the best.
Just because he stole once shouldn't define him as a thief - forever.
He can be more - maybe much more.
Erik Nilsson is an American journalist who has worked in China for over 10 years. His work has won various honors, including the Chinese Government Friendship Award - the highest honor the country bestows on foreigners. He has traveled to every provincial-level jurisdiction except Chongqing and Guangdong, covering such stories as the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes, nomadic communities’ development and civil society.
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