Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" in Chinese law

Stanley Lubman has a column today in the China Real Time section of the Wall Street Journal online edition that discusses the charges against Pu Zhiqiang. With the greatest respect for Lubman, I think that his discussion could give readers an inaccurate understanding of those charges and what they say about the Chinese legal system, so I want to add this modest clarification to his discussion.

Lubman states that Pu

now awaits trial for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a crime with no clear definition.

His case dramatically illustrates the contradiction between attempts to increase legality in an authoritarian regime and that regime’s overwhelming anxiety about maintaining social stability. The vagueness of the  “crime” of “picking quarrels” – authorities didn’t say who Pu allegedly picked a quarrel with, or about what — allows police unlimited discretion to detain and arrest offenders for almost any action.

This, I think, is misleading. There is in fact no general and vaguely defined crime of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles" (寻衅滋事), and there's no need for the police to identify the other party or the subject of any quarrel. The relevant article of the Criminal Law, Art. 293, states, "In the event of one of the following acts of picking quarrels and provoking troubles, ..." (emphasis added). It then lists four relatively specific acts -- or at least more specific than the vague "picking quarrels and provoking troubles." Things that could be called "picking quarrels and provoking troubles" but that do not fall within one of the four listed categories are not crimes. As a matter of written law, therefore, the police do not have unlimited discretion to detain offenders under this vague rubric. Moreover, as Jeremy Daum has pointed out in his excellent analysis of this crime, there is a further judicial interpretation of Art. 293 that narrow its scope even more. Lubman is aware of this and links to Daum's article, but the main message of the column seems still to be that there exists a very vaguely defined crime of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles."

The reason I think it's worth taking this issue up is that if the diagnosis is wrong, the cure is going to be wrong. If the diagnosis is that the law is vague, then it would seem to follow naturally that the solution is to make the law less vague. I want to stress here that in fact the law is not all that vague, and as applied to Pu's case has to be stretched beyond all recognition in order to apply. But the authorities are using it anyway. The problem lies in the lack of any independent body that could put boundaries around the ability of police to make words mean anything (or more to the point, not mean anything). In other words, it's a problem of institutions, not of legislative drafting.

I doubt Lubman would disagree with any of this, and possibly it's what he meant to say. I'm just not sure the column actually says this, so I want to add my two cents.

JULY 3, 2014 UPDATE: Here's a response from Stanley Lubman.

Commentary, News - Chinese Law | Permalink


I think both Lubman and Clarke are right. In fact, they do not contradict each other. China uses both approaches at its disposal.

Posted by: Frankie Fook-lun Leung | Jul 2, 2014 9:31:47 AM

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