Words of the Week: “Criminalizing Creditors” by Accusing Them of “Picking Quarrels”

Many entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens welcomed the news that provincial prosecutors in Guizhou are investigating a local government for arresting businesswoman Ma Yijiayi and her lawyers and accusing them of picking quarrels,” simply for trying to collect a legitimate debt from the deadbeat local government. 

The case has highlighted the problem of judicial and police misconduct and overreach, particularly the “criminalization of creditors”—in other words, using the machinery of state to intimidate legitimate creditors who are just trying to collect debts they are owed. 

The ever more frequently (and arbitrarily) applied crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is included as one of 104 entries in our recently launched ebook, China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition. The full entry is reproduced below.

picking quarrels and provoking trouble (寻衅滋事 xúnxìn zīshì)

Broadly defined “pocket crime” denoting behavior that disrupts social order, often invoked by authorities as an excuse to stifle dissent and freedom of expression.

Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” originates from the crime of hooliganism, which was outlined in the Chinese criminal code of 1979. In the 1997 revision of the code, the crime of “hooliganism” was abolished and replaced with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an offense that applied to 1) arbitrarily attacking people; 2) chasing and intimidating others; 3) damaging private or public property; or 4) causing serious disorder in public places. In 2013, judicial authorities broadened the scope of the crime to apply to spreading false information on the internet. The crime carries a sentence of up to five years in prison for minor offenses, and between five and ten years in prison for more serious offenses.

Given its broad definition, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is typically used as a catch-all offense to target activists, lawyers, journalists, and petitioners, as well as those committing more mundane offenses involving gambling or drunkenness. Some notable people charged with the crime in recent years include the “Feminist Five,” who attempted to raise awareness about sexual harassment before their arrest in March 2015. #MeToo activist and journalist Huang Xueqin was also charged with the crime in October 2019, and later detained in September 2021 for “inciting subversion of state power.” Businessman Sun Dawu was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in November 2020, likely due to his political activism. That same month, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was charged with the crime and sentenced to four years in prison for documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2022, police in Suzhou accused a woman of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for wearing a kimono amid rising anti-Japanese sentiment. After the A4 White Paper protests (see entry) in November 2022, hundreds of young people were detained and some of them, including book editor Cao Zhixin and her friends, were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Many others, including Weibo bloggers and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, have also been detained under the same charge.

Criticism of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” has been growing. Luo Xiang, a prominent professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law, said in a public lecture that the crime was a “disgrace to the law,” adding that if conviction and sentencing for the crime were too vague, the police and judiciary “will use it indiscriminately, they will use it to do everything as they want, and they will selectively enforce the law.” Agreeing with Luo ahead of the 2023 Two Sessions meeting in February, Zhu Zhengfu, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference advisory body, called for abolishing the crime because it risked undermining China’s legal system and was too open to “selective enforcement” by authorities. In August 2023, the Supreme People’s Court published an investigation concluding that local officials in Zhejiang and Fujian had abused the vaguely defined crime in order to prosecute young people, migrant workers, unemployed people, and those who tried to petition higher authorities outside the normal legal channels.

A March 2023 WeChat article by law professor and legal blogger Zhai Zhiyong suggested that it might be better to do away with the offense of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” rather than try to make it less vague by tinkering with it: “In short, if a particular legal offense is frequently abused or misapplied and thus creates logical contradictions within the legal system, it must mean that there is a problem with the law itself. From this perspective, the more thorough and direct solution might be to simply abolish the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble, rather than attempt to eliminate its ambiguities.”


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