Article: Picking Quarrels: The One Essential Charge in China

By Luo Jiajun

If China’s Criminal Code could contain only one crime, more than one Chinese judge, lawyer, and legal scholar has told me that the crime they would keep is “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” or ????.

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” (???), 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.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this charge could be brought against almost anyone living in China today.

Article 293 of the Criminal Code defines picking quarrels as encompassing the following actions:

  1.  Arbitrarily attacking people with particularly grave circumstances;

  2. Chasing, intercepting, or berating others with particularly grave circumstances;

  3. Forcibly taking, destroying, or occupying public or private property with serious circumstances; or

  4. Making a commotion and causing serious disorder in a public place.

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.

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