Many Chinese judges, lawyers, and legal scholars will tell you that if China’s Criminal Code could contain just one crime, the crime they would keep is “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事). After reviewing hundreds of verdicts from Chinese courts convicting both ordinary citizens and public figures of the crime of picking quarrels, it is not an exaggeration to say that this charge could be brought against almost anyone living in China today.
Under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, authorities broadly employ the picking quarrels charge for politically motivated prosecutions and other arbitrary law enforcement. The widespread and arbitrary use of the picking quarrels charge to suppress speech and expression and impose social control represents a shift from merely preventing direct challenges to authoritarian rule, such as organized protests, to actively deterring public discussion of a wide range of topics not previously considered politically sensitive, even when there is no real possibility that discussion could lead to civil unrest.
The charge of picking quarrels has historical roots in the equally notorious crime of “hooliganism” (流氓罪), which was extensively abused during the Maoist period from the 1950s to the 1970s as a pretext to punish political dissidents and persons suspected of immorality such as sexual minorities. This practice persisted into the 1980s and 1990s until the 1997 Criminal Code abolished hooliganism and replaced it with picking quarrels.
Article 293 of the Criminal Code defines picking quarrels as encompassing the following actions:
Article 293 then specifies penalties for this offense, ranging from controlled release and short-term detention to five years in prison. Those “gathering others to commit the acts multiple times and seriously disrupting social order” could receive up to ten years’ imprisonment.
At first glance, the crime of picking quarrels seems aimed at preserving social order, especially as it falls within the Criminal Code’s Chapter VI, Crimes of Obstructing the Administration of Public Order. The name also suggests that its primary target might be something like a drunken brawl.
However, the law is written in highly ambiguous language. Each of the four sub-categories of actions is described vaguely with terms such as “particularly grave circumstances” and “berating” that are subject to arbitrary interpretation. The fourth sub-category, “making a commotion,” is especially problematic. It acts as a catch-all within a catch-all, enabling prosecution against almost any objectionable act as “causing serious disorder in a public place.”
In 2013, following directives from the Party, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) jointly issued Judicial Interpretation No. 21, introducing “online picking quarrels” as a new subcategory of the catch-all crime. This newly established rule allows officials to criminalize online speech they deem objectionable, ostensibly to combat misinformation.
In practice, enforcement often goes beyond the scope defined by the 2013 Interpretation or the 1997 Criminal Code. Chinese authorities, especially local government and police, frequently use picking quarrels for arbitrary detention. The long list of arbitrary detention targets includes activists, protestors, petitioners, and those involved in policy advocacy or political expression. Such politically motivated persecutions are typically brought under the fourth subcategory of picking quarrels, “making a commotion.”
For example, in China, petitioning, or engaging in letters and visits (信访), is a constitutional right for citizens seeking to bring grievances to the government at all levels. However, many petitioners are now receiving prison terms on picking quarrels charges. For example, a court in Chizhou City, Anhui, sentenced Zhou Zhizhong to a four-year term for picking quarrels because his repeated petitioning was perceived as “putting pressure on the government.” In particular, local officials are now using the picking quarrels charge against individuals who air their grievances in Beijing. Farmers Dai Yiting and Yin Huari from Chengbu Miao Autonomous County in Hunan Province accused local officials of embezzling poverty alleviation funds and took their petition to Beijing. The county court sentenced them to two years in prison for picking quarrels. Notably, the verdict did not explain how their petition disturbed public order in the national capital, but it described their Beijing petition as “seriously disrupting the order of government work in the six townships of Chengbu County.” This case is one of thousands where the “picking quarrels” charge was employed as a means of retaliation against petitioners.
Another notable target for the picking quarrels charge since 2013 is speech, including online speech. Under Xi’s leadership, China has become less tolerant of online activism or even mild criticism of the political system or Party policies. Using the ambiguous and overarching concepts of cyber sovereignty and national security, authorities employ picking quarrels to control speech, expanding its reach from discouraging collective action to more broadly deter public discussion of government policy and actions.
A significant picking quarrels case of this type is that of Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent rights lawyer arrested in 2014 and charged with picking quarrels and inciting ethnic hatred through his online social media posts. His conviction was based on just seven posts on his Sina Weibo account commenting on the government’s policies toward ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Pu’s case was widely publicized by Chinese state media to deter unapproved online speech.
More recently, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported on social media about the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan during the first months of the pandemic, was convicted of picking quarrels and sentenced to four years in prison by a Shanghai court in late 2020. According to her verdict, Zhang spread misinformation about the epidemic in Wuhan through online media and interviews with overseas outlets, which was alleged to have “caused public disorder.”
Beyond these high-profile cases, picking quarrels has been increasingly used to silence all kinds of objectionable speech and public discourse. This includes public discussions that might incite unrest, criticisms of social-economic government policies (such as policies toward urban real estate), disrespectful social media posts against individual traffic police, complaints about quarantine facility conditions, and even a work of fiction that possibly hinted at internal struggles in a stated-owned enterprise.
Unfortunately, comprehensive official statistics on picking quarrels is lacking. This is exacerbated by the systemic purge of picking quarrel verdicts in the SPC-run China Judgment Online database, from over 100,000 picking quarrels verdicts to 0 in 2021. Partial statistics from official and non-governmental sources suggest that approximately 100,000 people, representing around four percent of all criminal cases, are charged and detained each year under this highly ambiguous catch-all. For example, in 2019, there were 113,850 picking quarrels prosecutions, as reported by the SPP.
Notably, an August 2023 report released by an SPC research team agreed that the charge of picking quarrels is being overused on multiple occasions, including in petitioner cases. However, the SPC report falls short by advocating only cautious application of the charge and urging that the SPC should give lower courts better guidance on its use, without advocating wider systemic reform.
There have been strong voices from Chinese civil society calling for substantially reforming or abolishing the catch-all crime. For instance, in May 2023, Zhu Zhengfu, a lawyer and delegate to the National People’s Congress from Guangdong, proposed abolishing picking quarrels due to its widespread abuse. However, such voices have so far been ignored by authorities, with no resulting reform despite extensive media coverage.
Abolishing or significantly reforming picking quarrels seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, as Chinese authorities and officials find it convenient for suppressing dissent and exerting social control. The catch-all offense serves the regime well by providing a non-political charge for what are really political prosecutions. Finally, even if it were abolished, we could expect another catch-all charge to take its place, just as picking quarrels succeeded hooliganism.
Luo Jiajun is the China Law Fellow at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University Law Center. This article is republished with the permission of the author and the U.S.-Asia Law Institute.