Picking Quarrels, Disturbing Traffic and Vacation: The Creative Excesses of the Chinese Legal System

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Supporters of Chen Guangcheng, HO / AP

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng, in an undated photo, in a village in China

Last month, when officials in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing announced that Wang Lijun, the former police chief and close aide to political heavyweight Bo Xilai, was undergoing “vacation-style treatment,” pretty much everyone knew he wasn’t sitting around getting salt scrubs and massages.

But in a country where, despite regular flouting of its own constitution, the government is also obsessed with legalistic rationales for its actions, it got me thinking about all the inventive reasons given when people are locked up in China—the security apparatus’ creative take on “the dog ate my homework” excuse. Here, in no particular order, are just three examples of some of the more creative rationales used by the Chinese security services to confine people or make them disappear:

*Last fall, I interviewed a woman in Beijing who had the temerity to run as an independent candidate for local elections. After months of harassment, Wu Lihong was in October locked up for 15 days of “administrative detention,” a sneaky system in which Chinese can be held for a certain period without charge. After the 15th day—at which point, she was declared ineligible for public office—Wu was released. But her family couldn’t find her. Instead, Wu gave a hasty call to her brother. She was, she said, being taken to faraway Sichuan province where she would be visiting a religious pilgrimage site with a police escort. “I guess she has gone on vacation,” her brother joked at the time. “But I’m sure she’s not enjoying it.”

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*Chen Guangcheng, the brave legal advocate from Shandong has endured some of the Chinese legal system’s worst excesses. For daring to expose the fact that local women were illegally forced to undergo late-term abortions, Chen was placed under house arrest for months at a time. Then in August 2006, he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” Blind since childhood, Chen might seem an unlikely nexus of traffic-disturbing activity. In September 2010, he was released from jail but is, along with his family, confined to his home. Well-wishers who have tried to visit him have been beaten by thugs. Chen, too, has been periodically assaulted.

*Last December, Wang Lihong, a Beijing retiree who became a crusading rights activist, was released from jail after 11 months. The crime that led to prison time? “Picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” How’s that for a specific charge? Most often, human-rights activists are jailed for three crimes: inciting subversion of state power, actually subverting state power and leaking state secrets. The last one is particularly pernicious because the supposed state secret that was leaked can’t be made public in court because, well, it’s a state secret. But “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” is another mainstay of the Chinese legal system. In 2010, Zhao Lianhai, the father of a boy who was sickened during the melamine-tainted infant-formula scandal, was charged with this peculiar crime for, among other things, organizing a gathering of 12 parents. He was later convicted of “disturbing social order” before being released on medical parole.

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We’re now coming up to one of the periods on the calendar where those Chinese who dare to speak out on human rights tend to disappear for a time or are confined to their homes. On March 5, the National People’s Congress will gather for its annual session in Beijing. (Other times when China’s dissidents regularly go quiet are around the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown and the annual fall meeting of China’s leadership.) Already, some veteran activists’ social-media accounts have gone quiet. It’s not a good time to schedule dinner with dissidents.

Interestingly, as Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch, explains, a revised law that will be mooted at this month’s National People’s Congress would “effectively legalize secret detentions and ‘disappearances’ of people viewed as political risks by the government…Article 73 would allow the police to secretly detain citizens for up to six months on suspicion of ‘endangering state security’ or ‘terrorism’—two vague charges that have long been manipulated by the government to crack down on dissidents, human-rights lawyers, civil-society activists and Tibetan and Uighur separatists.” In a country with some of the most hard-working people on the planet, imagine the prospect of up to six months of “vacation.”

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