China should scrap ‘picking quarrels’ crime, says leading lawyer

China should abolish the catch-all crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a political delegate has proposed before next week’s major Two Sessions legislative meeting.

Zhu Zhengfu, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) advisory body, said the law risked undermining China’s legal system and was open to “selective enforcement” by authorities, according to state media.

“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is a broadly defined crime that is applied widely in China against dissidents, media workers, lawyers and activists. The broad accusation is frequently used by authorities as part of mass roundups before political meetings or events that the government does not want to be disrupted.

In 2013, it was amended to apply to people who posted or spread fake news online. It can carry a prison term of five years, or up to 10 for serious offences.

Often the charge appears politically driven, to varying degrees. Among those accused of it in recent years are a woman who wore a kimono in public for a cosplay photoshoot, and several students arrested after the “white paper” protests. In 2020, Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist, was sentenced to four years in prison for the crime after she reported and blogged online from Wuhan during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The crime often appears among suites of charges against individuals, such as the billionaire pig farmer and agricultural mogul Sun Dawu, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2021 and was also accused of “gathering a crowd to attack state organs”. Critics said the prosecution of Sun, who was a friend to dissidents, was politically motivated.

The Two Sessions is a concurrent meeting of the CPPCC and the National People’s Congress, the Chinese Communist party’s rubber-stamping parliament. At the formal meeting, which often goes for about a fortnight, the thousands of deputies and delegates can put forward suggestions or proposals to the central government for consideration. The relevant government departments are obliged to consider and reply to the thousands of suggestions and proposals submitted to them, according to the Chinese politics newsletter Pekingnology. That does not necessarily mean they will be adopted.

Zhu, who was the deputy head of the All China Lawyers Association, has proposed the change before, including before last year’s meeting, saying the “picking quarrels” crime was “highly abused” and led to over criminalisation. In 2016, he also called for an end to televised confessions in China.

Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist and China expert at the Australian National University, said Zhu’s chances were slim.

“Over the years the structural conditions – the political climate – has been trending towards giving the political leadership more leeway over the judicial process, not less,” Sung said.

“Disruption of public order is just about the most flexible charge against anti-status quo political elements that the Chinese state has at its disposal. It’s hard to see what they have to gain from narrowing its applicability.”

Zhu’s suggestion sparked debate on China’s closely monitored and censored social media. It was a trending topic, and a related hashtag was read by more than 50 million people by lunchtime on Tuesday. Supporters of the move said it was long overdue, and that the ambiguity of the law was a “serious flaw” in Chinese society.

“This crime was originally proposed for ‘convenience,’” one commenter said, characterising it as allowing authorities to say: “If I say you committed a crime, then you did.”

Others said the crime was a key protection of women and children, noting that it was one of the convictions that led to a 24-year prison sentence for an instigator of the brutal and high-profile assault of women in a restaurant in Tangshan last year.


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