|On January 4, 2022, a police officer from the Dongcheng Branch of the Xuchang Public Security Bureau managing the taxi rank in front of Xuchang East Station following the closure of the city. Image credit: Xuchang government|
Dissent has fast become a victim of the coronavirus as China tightens controls on acceptable forms of speech during the pandemic. Citizen journalists who give first-hand accounts that contradict the official version of events are at risk of arrest for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” with a notable example being Zhang Zhan (张展).
The crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” also targets those who take to the streets during lockdowns. China’s persistence with the zero-COVID policy, often imposing total lockdowns alongside mandatory testing programs in major cities or across entire neighborhoods, has sparked protests over overpriced groceries and poor-quality food supplies. As recently as January 2022, mass incidents broke out in Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Xi’an.
This entry in the Human Rights Journal, the first of two installments, looks at the application of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” through the case of a one prisoner whose political engagement was born out of frustration with pandemic restrictions. Part II looks at how this and similar cases reflect shifts in the use of different crimes to stifle dissent.
|Images from Radio Free Asia’s reporting on mass protests in Tianjin, Shenzhen, and Xian against COVID-19 restrictions. Image credit: Radio Free Asia|
Unbeknownst to many people is that China’s heavy-handed approach to handling COVID-19 led a dissenter to form an opposition party to challenge the Chinese Communist Party. Dui Hua’s research found that a young man surnamed Li founded the “People’s Party” (人民党) in Weihui City, Henan, in March 2020, two months after the initial outbreak occurred in neighboring Hubei province.
A document filed to the Weihui City People’s Court stated that Li became “anti-social” and resented the current political system after his sources of income were cut off as a result of pandemic containment measures. Following in the footsteps of Wuhan, the site of the first lockdown, cities and counties across Henan were soon placed under strict lockdowns with measures such as banning non-essential travel between villages and communities. Li allegedly recruited leftist supporters to join his People’s Party with a goal to save the world.
Li’s People’s Party might have existed only in name and only in the virtual space. Li used the internet to comment on current issues, disseminate his political views, and seek members. Li founded Oriental Voice, an online journal he irregularly posted in his QQ chatgroups. In Oriental Voice, Li published his party constitution and discussed historical nihilism (i.e. the questioning of the Chinese Communist Party’s official version of Chinese history). Additionally, he collected articles on how to “drink tea,” a euphemism for being summoned or interrogated by public and state security police. His articles, published over a total of 36 issues, garnered over 150,000 views.
Prosecutors alleged that the articles contained slanderous remarks about the socialist system and senior leaders. His personal QQ document folders also contained content described as “reactionary articles” with titles such as “Discussing Our Future during the Trough of the Communist Movement,” “A Letter to All Chinese Socialist Leftist Comrades,” “The Constitution of the People’s Party,” and “The Confidentiality Code of the People’s Party.”
According to the document, Li was suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and the Weihui City Public Security Bureau decided to carry out criminal detention on March 21, 2021 after he was apprehended in a staff dormitory in Guangzhou a day earlier. The Weihui City Procuratorate approved his arrest on April 2. Li was charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” On June 2, Li was formally indicted for this crime, which has been increasingly used against peaceful protests and those who express dissent.
The procuratorate claimed that Li had “promoted and disseminated reactionary speech in online public space and seriously disturbed social order” in violation of Article 293 of the Criminal Law. The prosecutor recommended that the court give Li a short prison sentence of 12 to 18 months in part because he was a first-time offender, admitted his guilt, and “showed repentance.”
It is notable that Li’s crime was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” In the past, similar behavior—starting a political party in opposition to the CCP, publishing materials political in nature, and seeking to recruit others—would be more likely to face charges of endangering state security, mainly subversion or inciting subversion.
Read Part II here.
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