Student travelers in trouble … again!

I suppose that college students can be forgiven for making a stupid choice or two when traveling to an exotic location outside the United States. But not this mistake. And, not in this location.

Earlier this month, three members of the UCLA men’s basketball team were arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou, China. In that country, the penalty for shoplifting can be as much as 10 years in prison. Time spent in a Chinese prison is kind of like comparing “dog years” to human years. A decade of detention under Xi Jinping can be like half a century in U.S. maximum security. Is that a long time? Think about the last time that Charles Manson was not in prison before he died.


The basketball players are part of Generation Y (also known as Millennials), the children born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Population experts often refer to them as the “echo” off the Baby Boom (those born between 1946 and 1964). The socialization of this cohort was affected by the expansion of digital technology, a liberal approach to economics and politics, and a general disinterest in history.

The Great Recession (2007-2012) may have caused a lack of trust in the economy, the value of work, and the kind of ambition that typified their parents’ generation. The children of Generation Y saw hundreds of thousands of people lose their homes because of defaults on mortgages, small and large businesses go into bankruptcy, and a nation reeling from distrust in the most basic social institutions.

I think that a corollary to all this turmoil was a total reliance on the here and now. That included an isolation from current events because anything that might be reported (in newspapers or on television) as current, already happened. If that’s the case, it may explain why these three young men either never heard of Otto Warmbier or didn’t think their actions were in any way related to his experience.

Warmbier, redux

As readers of this column will recall, Otto Warmbier was an American university student who was visiting China in January 2016, when he was lured to North Korea by Young Pioneer Tours, which promised “the trip your parents don’t want you to take.” While at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, Warmbier allegedly took a poster off the hotel’s wall, thinking it would be a great souvenir. The poster stated: “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-Il’s patriotism!”

In North Korea, damaging, stealing, or otherwise debasing anything with the name or image of Kim Jong-Il (deceased father) or Kim Jong-Un (son, and current president) is considered to be a very serious crime. Consequently, Warmbier was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport for committing “a hostile act against the state.”

At his trial on March 16, 2016, Warmbier confessed that he had plotted to steal the poster on behalf of his hometown Methodist Church and the Z Society (a supposedly secret youth group) at the University of Virginia, both of which were said to be allied with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Of course, neither group was involved nor were they tied to the CIA. But, the allegations alone were sufficient cause for the North Korean court to sentence Warmbier to 15 years at hard labor.

Approximately one month after his sentencing, Warmbier suffered some sort of neurological injury that has never been explained. North Korea disclosed his medical condition in June 2017, and informed U.S. authorities that the young man had fallen into a coma as a result of botulism, a claim that later proved to be false. On June 12, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that Warmbier had been released by North Korean officials, but he was in a comatose state.

Warmbier was airlifted to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he was diagnosed as being in a “state of unresponsive wakefulness,” also known as a vegetative state. Brain scans revealed that he had suffered significant loss of brain tissue, probably from lack of oxygen. On June 19, Otto Warmbier died. He was 22 years old.

Flash forward

A week ago, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill were staying at a hotel in Hangzhou, before they were supposed to travel to Shanghai for an exhibition game against Georgia Tech. One day before President Trump was to meet with China President Xi Jinping, the three student athletes were arrested for shoplifting sunglasses from the Louis Vuitton store, next to the hotel. I don’t know if any of the three were aware of the Otto Warmbier story, but somebody certainly should have warned them that laws, and especially the punishment for breaking laws, in other countries are quite different from what they might expect in the U.S.

Moreover, one would think that the parents of these students would know that breaking the law in a foreign country could have very serious consequences. But, perhaps I expect too much, even from those who should know better. LiAngelo Ball is he son of former basketball player LaVar Ball, who was also in China, but for an opening of a pop-up store that features his Bib Baller Brand, a sportswear company.

When LaVar Ball was asked about his son’s arrest, he told ESPN, “He’ll be fine. Everyone’s making it a big deal. It ain’t that big a deal.” Really? When my son was a student, he was in China. He was also in Japan. He was an exchange student in Argentina. As a high-school senior, he led his Foreign Language Club on a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico. Believe me; if he had been arrested for anything in any of those countries, it would have been a very big deal. And my wife and I would have been in panic mode.

Fortunately for them, the three were released last week. As a result of the incident in China, all three UCLA players have been placed on “indefinite suspension” while the athletic department and the office of student conduct consider the case. Personally, I think that they should be required to read a newspaper daily during their suspension so that they might learn about what is happening in the world around them.