The action of the three students was indeed moronic, and it was illegal. Absolutely terrible mind-numblingly bad thinking. But I understand it.
These are 18-year-old or 19-year old kids. They're all college freshman. And 18 year-old-college freshmen on their own in the world for the first time in their lives do Really Stupid and Moronic Things. They have since the concept of College Freshman first existed and will continue to do so. These three kids were on a trip away from their parents. They were in a foreign country where the paper bills look like fake Monopoly money, and everything around them is different, unfamiliar and almost doesn't even seem totally "real." And so they stole sunglasses. It was incredibly stupid, most-especially doing it in freaking China. But that's what a lot of 18/19-year-old college freshman do. If a college freshman pledged a fraternity or sorority, they'd go through hazing and maybe even do worse, and not just "worse" but maybe far worse than stealing sunglasses. That doesn't defend it. But it explains it more clearly for what the action actually was, rather than as a Headline News Story that required international diplomacy. It's wrong, it's stupid, it's moronic. And it's illegal. And they absolutely deserve punishment, even arguably time in jail. (Though hardly 10 years in a Chinese prison, regardless of whatever their laws are.) But -- in perspective -- it was sunglasses. And if it was done in Los Angeles, we'd shake our heads, expect them to be suspended for 8 to 10 games or even more, maybe get a suspended sentence for shoplifting, do community service, and they'd hopefully learn their lesson and get on with their life, hopefully much better for it. And most people wouldn't even know that it happened.
But it wasn't at home, it was in China. China! And the instinct is to say "Seriously, guys, you shoplifted sunglasses in China?? Don't you realize how incredibly dangerous that is?!!" Well...no, they probably don't. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the reality is far too many high school students literally can't identify Canada on a map. So to think they inherently grasp the intricacies of the repressive Chinese legal system is not probable. That doesn't even come close to defending the action either. Ignorance is no excuse. They should have known that not only is any shoplifting illegal and bone-headed, but in China it's on the good side of suicidal. But it does put an international diplomatic incident in more detailed perspective of why it occurred.
So, I'm fine slamming them for their mind-numbing moronic action -- but I understand it, and don't think it makes them awful people. Just egregiously naive kids who did something utterly idiotic. Which is what a lot of 18-year-old college freshman do. And they get their just punishment and move on.