“Bridge builder” is normally a high compliment. For one family in Jilin province, however, bridge-building earned them charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” setting off another national debate about the Party-state’s favorite pocket crime. “Picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” is a vague charge that can be used to criminalize just about anyone who stands in the Party’s way, from billionaire entrepreneurs and muckraking labor journalists to feminists and Weibo bloggers. The facts surrounding this latest controversy over “picking quarrels” are straightforward. In 2014, the Huang family, led by Huang Deyi, invested 130,000 yuan ($18,000) of their own money to build a pontoon bridge across the Tao’er River in Jilin province. The family—who had previously operated a ferry across the river—charged small vehicles five yuan per crossing (70 U.S. cents) and large vehicles 10 yuan ($1.40 U.S. dollars). The bridge shortened transit times across the Tao’er River by three hours. In 2018, the Huangs were compelled to destroy the bridge by the local Water Affairs Bureau after failing to pay fines related to illegal construction. In 2019, 18 members of the Huang family were convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to between two years in prison to three months in detention—all suspended for a two-year probationary period. The family was also compelled to pay a fine equal to their revenue from the bridge, which totaled less than half the cost of construction at 52,950 yuan (slightly over $7,000). The case went viral in early July after Huang Deyi publicized his application to appeal his conviction. In an opinion piece published by The Paper, a Shanghai-based state-controlled outlet, popular legal commentator Luo Xiang argued that the case demonstrated the need to abolish the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on a national level:
This case touches on the applicability of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Many scholars hold that it should be abolished at a legislative level, and at every annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, there are proposals that it be abolished and replaced with a criminal charge that is more clearly defined. Yet, seeing as the law has yet to be amended and remains on the books, the academic consensus is that the judiciary apply it on a strictly narrow basis.
[…] The “Treatise on the Response of the Tao” says, “Building bridges and paving roads are acts of great benevolence.” Benevolent acts should of course not be classified as harmful criminal acts. According to a Farmers Daily report, local transportation issues were never resolved after the bridge was demolished. Between 2018–when the bridge was demolished—and when the media began reporting on the issue, local officials had yet to put forth a plan to build a bridge. Travel became extremely inconvenient for the villagers. Getting to the opposite bank to tend to fields or deliver goods required a 70-kilometer detour, and what had once been a 10-minute journey now took over three hours.
[…] Yet, according to the above provisions [which detailed national water regulations], even if building a bridge without proper permission were found to be an illegal act, the most severe legal punishment would be an administrative citation with no criminal responsibility. Violating the law is not ipso facto criminal. Jaywalking and speeding both violate the “Transportation Safety Law,” and can be punished with administrative punishments such as warnings or fines, but they are not criminal acts. We cannot assert that just because something is a violation that it is a criminal act, and therefore subject to prosecution under a charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
[…] The “Book of Changes” proclaims, “The truly benevolent family shall bring good fortune upon itself.” The courts should never inflict misfortune on a benevolent family, for that defies common sense and basic human decency, and thereby undermines the court’s own authority. [Chinese]
Some reporting on the bridge was subject to censorship. An essay published by the Communist Youth League news outlet China Youth Daily that cast Huang and his family in a positive light (and noted that local authorities are now finally building a new bridge in the same location as the demolished one) was taken down without explanation:
When China Youth Daily reporters came to interview residents of Zhenlin Village, many villagers said that Huang Deyi’s bridge had been a boon to everyone, and that the small toll he collected was considered reasonable. A number of villagers also mentioned that pedestrians and those riding electric scooters did not have to pay to cross.
“Familiarity is precious.” Yue Guoyou, the owner of a market in Zhenlin Village, said, “In this village, we’re all one big family. The Huangs never asked us to pay, and many of us were used to crossing for free.”
[…] Since the advent of Jilin’s rainy season, the waters of the Tao’er River are surging. On July 10, reporters saw two construction vehicles at work leveling a road in the vicinity of the former pontoon bridge. An employee of the local transport bureau told reporters that a bridge will be constructed there soon: leveling work has begun, electricity and water connections are being prepped, and the bridge’s design is underway. Construction is expected to be completed before this year’s autumn harvest.
Villagers, upon seeing the excavators at work, spread the news that the Tao’er River would soon have a new bridge. They told reporters, “It sure would be convenient to have a bridge again!” [Chinese]
At the South China Morning Post, Yuanyue Dang reported that Huang’s appeal of his conviction on charges of “picking quarrels” is now under review, with some state media chiming in on Huang’s side:
On Saturday, the Intermediate People’s Court of Baicheng City issued a notice saying it had decided to review Huang’s appeal.
[…] Many lawyers have publicly voiced opposition to the lower court’s verdict, arguing the punishment was too heavy and the government had not addressed the real problem of the lack of infrastructure in the region.
[…] Even state media outlets voiced their doubts.
“It’s fine to be punished by the law when you break it. But more than penalties will be needed to solve the problem of villagers’ difficulty in crossing the river,” said an opinion piece published on Friday by Xiake Dao, a social media channel affiliated with the People’s Daily. [Source]
Although not a focus of speculation within China, observers outside China’s borders questioned whether Huang’s arrest was a result of the “Sweep the Black” campaign that sought to crack down on organized crime in both urban and rural areas. Wang Zhi’an, a famed investigative journalist at CCTV who fled China during the pandemic, told viewers of his popular Youtube channel that Huang’s family had likely been ensnared in the campaign in an attempt by local officials to meet arrest quotas. Indeed, a judgment posted after Huang’s conviction noted that police had been tipped off about his actions by the local Public Security Bureau’s “Sweep the Black” task force. If Huang’s “picking quarrels” conviction was indeed related to that campaign, he would hardly be the only one. The families of entrepreneurs imprisoned on “Sweep the Black”-related charges say that “the campaign netted mostly innocent people charged with crimes that they either did not commit or were exaggerated to fulfill prosecution quotas and a political mandate.” In Yunnan, there were reports of the politicization of the campaign as a way to silence nettlesome villagers and score points against perceived enemies by reporting them to “Sweep the Black” task forces. Research by Bo Yin and Yu Mou published in The China Quarterly found that the definition of “picking quarrels” was stretched during the “Sweep the Black” campaign: “These picking quarrel incidents would have been regarded as too insignificant to be treated as crimes pursuant to Article 13 of Criminal Law 1997 under normal circumstances. Under the Sweep Away campaign, however, these minor transgressions were repackaged as elements of an evil force.”