Grab / Mixed bag of crimes that "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people", part 2

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In recent weeks, the odd expression "kǒudài zuì 口袋罪" (lit., "pocket / bag crime"} has become a hot topic).  It's a vague, catch-all term without any juridical / official standing, yet it has left many people troubled over its implications.  To understand why people are unsettled over such a seemingly zany, innocuous term, we will look at it from various angles.

‘Pocket crime’ — Phrase of the Week
Politics & Current Affairs

A new draft law in China may dole out punishments for “harming the feelings of the Chinese people.” It has sparked criticism in China.

Andrew Methven, The China Project (9/15/23)

The context

A draft amendment to China’s Public Security Administration Punishments Law (治安管理处罚法 zhì’ān guǎnlǐ chǔfá fǎ) was published on the Chinese People’s Congress website on September 5. It is open for public consultation before China’s lawmakers finalize changes to the law.

One proposal in the draft has sparked debate in China:

In this revision, the second and third paragraphs of Article 34 indicate newly added behaviors that should be punished, including “wearing clothes and accessories in public places that are detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation and hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation”; and “producing, disseminating, and publicizing things or remarks that are harmful to the feelings of the Chinese people.”


Zài gāi xiūdìng zhōng, dì sānshísì tiáo de dì èr kuǎn hé dì sān kuǎn yìjiàn xiǎnshìle xīnzēng yīng chǔfá de shìxiàng, bāokuò “zài gōnggòng chǎngsuǒ chuānzhuó, pèidài yǒusǔn zhōnghuá mínzú jīngshén, shānghài zhōnghuá mínzú gǎnqíng de fúshì, biāozhì de; zhìzuò, chuánbò, xuānyáng, sànbù yǒusǔn zhōnghuá mínzú gǎnqíng, shānghài zhōnghuá mínzú gǎnqíng de wùpǐn huòzhě yánlùn de.”

Recommended punishments under the proposal include detention of up to 15 days and fines up to 5,000 yuan ($688).

But “harming the feelings of the Chinese people” is vague and subjective, as one commentator notes:

The meanings of “harming the spirit of the Chinese nation” and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” are ambiguous. If implemented, it may be a typical “pocket crime,” which is likely to be abused.


“Yǒusǔn zhōnghuá mínzú jīngshén,” “shānghài zhōnghuá mínzú gǎnqíng” hányì móléng liǎngkě. Rúguǒ shíxíng de huà, zé kěnéng shì diǎnxíng de “kǒudài zuì.” Yǒu kěnéng tóng bǎoshòu zhēngyì de xúnxìn zīshì zuì hé céngjīng de liúmáng zuì yíyàng, jí dà kěnéng bèi lànyòng.

And with that, we have our Phrase of the Week.

What it means

Pocket crime is a Chinese legal term first coined in 1979. It describes a crime category that is vague, broad, and can be open to interpretation and abuse by law enforcement authorities.

Three types of crime were identified as pocket crimes in 1979:

The crime of capitalist speculation, the crime of hooliganism, and the crime of dereliction of duty.


Tóujīdǎobǎ zuì, liúmáng zuì hé wànhū zhíshǒu zuì.

These crimes were further defined in an attempt to bring more clarity and less ambiguity to the law: For example, hooliganism (流氓罪 liúmáng zuì) was divided into a number of crimes that were supposed to be more specific. One of those was picking quarrels and provoking trouble (寻衅滋事 xúnxìn zīshì).

Picking quarrels and provoking trouble has also become controversial in recent years for the same reasons, and has been described as a “pocket crime.” The scope of its definition was broadened in 1997, and then again in 2013.

These changes have been criticized as part of the increasing suppression of civil society in China.

In August this year, an investigation by China’s High Court found that picking quarrels and provoking trouble was also being used widely and abused by law enforcement officials. And this week, it was reported that an American citizen had been detained in China under the crime in 2020, and has recently been released.

The latest draft amendment to China’s Public Security Administration Punishments Law is potentially another capacious grab-all category of criminality akin to picking quarrels and provoking trouble, notes Geremie R. Barmé, the editor of China Heritage.

So our translation of this week’s phrase is: “A nebulous catchall legal instrument open to interpretation and abuse.”

VHM:  Why should the totalitarian, dictatorial CCP regime give a fig about online criticism?

Are enough people finally getting fed up with, sick and tired of, the corruption and incompetence of their rulers that their complaints are swelling to the point that the Party is actually starting to take note?

China’s Plan to Criminalize ‘Hurting National Sentiment’ Draws Widespread Criticism Online

There has been overwhelming criticism online regarding China’s proposed revisions to its Public Security Administration Punishments Law. The revisions would penalize acts that “damage the spirit of the Chinese nation and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

The draft revisions, introduced in late August, add several new punishable acts. They do not precisely define what constitutes “damaging the spirit of the Chinese nation.” The proposed revisions prescribe detention of 5-10 days or fines of 1000-3000 yuan for wearing, forcing others to wear, producing, or spreading items or remarks that have such a damaging effect to the national spirit. Harsher penalties apply in severe cases.

After China’s state media reported on the draft law, Chinese social media erupted with skepticism. Opinion leaders called on netizens to lobby the National People’s Congress opposing the legislation.

Shanghai Fudan University professor Qu Weiguo said there is currently no legal definition of “the spirit of the Chinese nation.” He worried that hastily writing such a law without clear boundaries could lead to confusion in enforcement, abuse of related charges, and vulgarization of the “spirit.” Qu questioned how the law could determine whether the “feelings of the Chinese nation” were hurt, since the subject is the entire nation rather than individual citizens. He said authorities should be prudent about codifying such crimes, which require solid evidence. Vague definitions could enable rampant abuse, with serious judicial consequences.

Source: Central News Agency (Taiwan), September 5, 2023

Briefings | | September 6, 2023 | |


I repeat, although "kǒudài zuì 口袋罪" (lit., "pocket / bag crime"} may have legal implications, it is not yet an enacted, juridical term.  The fact that the government is now trying to turn it into law with heavy penalties for infractions is what's causing people to stand up and complain about it.

Observations by the Chinese legal scholar Donald Clarke

If you’re wondering what the term means, it's a catch-all category for activity that criminalizes anything the authorities don’t like but didn’t mention specifically in the Criminal Law (effective 1979; there was no formal criminal code before then). In the 1979 code, that crime was liúmángzuì 流氓罪 ("hooliganiam"): it defined certain types of acts as liúmángzuì 流氓罪, and then added a final type of act: qítā liúmáng xíngwéi 其他流氓行为 ("other types of hooligan / rogue behavior"). Hence the characterization as a catch-all crime. In the current Criminal Code, the pocket crime of choice is xúnxìn zīshì 寻衅滋事 ("picking quarrels and provoking trouble"), which is widely used to criminalize all kinds of unwelcome behavior that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the Criminal Law (having a dinner with your activist lawyer friends, for example, or posting a tweet mocking XJP).

If you know that but your question is why “pocket crime” has that meaning—i.e., what do pockets have to do with it?—then I don’t know the answer, but I can circulate the question to my Chinese law listserv and see if anyone knows. I think the answer may be that "kǒudài 口袋" here means “bag”, not “pocket”, and the idea is that it’s kind of like Santa’s sack: an all-purpose container into which a limitless amount of miscellaneous things can be stuffed.

I think it’s generally used in a critical sense, but more because the reality it describes is something the speaker usually disapproves of. I don’t think it’s inherently pejorative, or at least not terribly so. I can imagine someone like Deng saying, “We need a 'kǒudài zuì 口袋罪' (lit., 'bag / sack crime'} to deal with crafty criminals who 'zuān fǎlǜ de kòngz 钻法律的空子!' ('take advantage of legal loopholes'). But this is all based on just a very vague gǎnjué 感觉 ("feeling") I have; I wouldn’t want to stake a lot on it.

But yes, it’s not a juridical term. It doesn’t appear in any legislation, and I doubt it appears in court judgments (although that’s easily tested at least to the extent of published court judgments by doing a word search in the major databases).

I agree with Don.  I've always felt that "xúnxìn zīshì 寻衅滋事" ("picking quarrels and provoking trouble") is a monumentally lǒngtǒng 籠統 ("general and unspecific; sweeping and vague" charge that can be applied to virtually anything that annoys the authorities, and it can be used to punish people all the way from a week or so in jail and fines starting from 5,000 RMB up to life imprisonment and hundreds of thousands of RMB (or much more) as well as torture with psychoactive drugs and other diabolical means.

What's freaking people out now is that the government authorities already have "xúnxìn zīshì 寻衅滋事" ("picking quarrels and provoking trouble") to torment citizens, but that they are now seeking to add another even more widely applicable legal tool, kǒudài zuì 口袋罪 ("bag / sack crime"), to their arsenal.

Basic vocabulary

kǒudài 口袋

    pocket (bag sewn into clothing)
    bag; sack

 kǒudài zuì 口袋罪

    (law, figurative) fuzzily-defined offences; catch-all offences  

As for the  wording "pocket crime" to render kǒudài zuì 口袋罪 into English, which makes the expression sound even stranger than it really is, I think "sack crime" or "bag crime" might work a bit better to convey the notion that it's something you just randomly toss things into.  I admit, though, that most people invariably think of "pocket" when they see kǒudài 口袋.  However, I recall from reading premodern fiction and essays that kǒudài 口袋 often referred to "bag" or "sack" for carrying miscellaneous items.  Furthermore, a bag is a more primitive device than a pocket, which is harder to make and sew into a garment.


Where crimes that "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" get to be really scary is when they are perpetrated by the Chinese people themselves, on an ever-increasing scale, as seems to be the case nowadays with wearing the wrong kind of clothing, and so forth.

"Victor H. Mair wrote in 2011 that while the phrase "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" resulted in 17,000 online hits, rewriting the phrase as "hurt the feelings of the Japanese people" only yields 178 hits, and the same phrase rewritten with 17 other nationalities provides zero hits.

    — "Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people" (Wikipedia)

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser and Geremie R. Barmé]


  1. Alex Shpilkin said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 2:06 pm

    I believe English uses “grab-bag” in some of the same contexts? Although a “catch-all crime” would probably be an adequate translation even if it doesn’t map to the Chinese metaphor.

    Re hurting feelings, one precedent might be article 148 of the Russian criminal code, “public actions expressing overt disrespect for society and performed for the express purpose of offending the feelings of the religious” (, dated 2013; colloquially оскорбление чувств верующих, oskorblenie čuvstv veruûŝih, “offending the feelings of the religious”; translation mine; not a lawyer).

    I don’t believe it was ever used for systematic persecution, although there have been a couple of high-profile cases; the reason it was a focus of as much scorn as it was (before much worse things came along) is exactly that nobody can say what the hell it actually means or why it needs to be there.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 8:21 pm

    My mother had a bag with pockets on it, that hung in the kitchen and was used for all sorts of things that didn't belong anywhere else. She called that bag the "catch-all".

  3. Michael Watts said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 11:29 pm

    The meanings of “harming the spirit of the Chinese nation” and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” are ambiguous. If implemented, it may be a typical “pocket crime,” which is likely to be abused.

    Why has a clause been left out of the English translation?


    If implemented, it may be a typical "pocket crime". The possibility exists that [it will be] the same as the very controversial crime of "picking fights / making trouble" and the onetime crime of "hooliganism", extremely likely to be abused.

    I tend to agree with the post and the other commenters that "catchall crime" is a good English translation and there's no particular reason to worry about the meaning of 口袋 in other contexts when translating it in this one.

    Do we know of a legal system that doesn't implement catchalls like this? Here's a quote from Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, about Qing China:

    Where the offense could not be fitted into any category in the code, the court could find the defendant guilty of doing what ought not to be done or of violating an imperial decree — not an actual decree but one that the Emperor would have made had the matter been brought to his attention.

  4. AntC said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 12:41 am

    Do we know of a legal system that doesn't implement catchalls like this?

    There's legal systems with prohibitions that have evolved from 'Common Law'/case law/precedent, rather than explicit statute. They include wording like 'failing to keep the peace'; but to substantiate a charge the prosecutor must be able to point to case law of what constitutes un-peace-keeping behaviour. Then those aren't catch-alls, and anyway the legislature of the day can always make statutes nullifying case law.

    So I'd say: Britain, Europe, U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand have no such catch-alls. (I'm omitting other parts of the world because I don't know in enough detail, not because I know they do have catch-alls.)

    The issue with PRC law of 'harming the Chinese People's feelings' is that it's administrators who decide what caused the harm and how (there's no reference to any 'People'); no judicial 'due process'; and there's no grounds for the accused to appeal against those entirely arbitrary assessments/no appeal to case law or statute.

    We might also compare the Stalinist era 'thought crimes': even though the accused did nothing wrong overtly — not an actual act but one that the accused would have made had the matter been brought to their attention. (to adapt your quote) There's some very finely judged dialogue in the movie 'Death of Stalin' where Beria twists victims in this way, based I believe on actual proceedings in Stalin's 'show trials'.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 1:06 am

    The USA certainly does have catchall crimes. The big one is "wire fraud", which is (for example) how we prosecuted the crime of buying an athletic admission spot from a university sports coach.

    "Honest services fraud" is in a very similar space.

    "Disorderly conduct" is the example that I've read about as being the equivalent of Soviet "hooliganism".

  6. AntC said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 1:47 am

    Mail fraud and wire fraud are terms used in the United States to describe the use of a physical or electronic mail system to defraud another, and are U.S. federal crimes. [wp]

    'physical … system' sounds pretty concrete to me. 'defraud' comes with a burden of proof that the accused mis-represented something(?) IIRC those cases involved students who were no sorts of athletes/had never competed in sports at any sort of level. So that wasn't catch-all, it was catch-fraud.

    Those crimes are invoked at the Federal level, to avoid stepping on the toes of State law. And specifically the fraudulent activity must cross State boundaries to fall within Federal jurisdiction. So yes, it involves some sort of legal fiction to sidestep the State. But then when a State Senate can go overturning a court decision and reappoint a corrupt official to the highest legal position, there needs to be an overriding mechanism. (The U.S.'s legal system is already a laughing stock around the world, with recent appointments to the Supreme Court — because Justice Matters.)

    (Wire fraud is also amongst some of the charges being brought against Trump, because (allegedly) he interfered from Washington across State boundaries to State-run elections.)

    My 'laughing stock' doesn't amount to the so-whatism that equates the U.S. legal system (despite all its current woes) to the PRC's powers of arbitrary arrest.

  7. Aotearoa said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 6:43 am

    I spent 17 years in the New Zealand. When someone was being a nuisance on the street they would often be arrested for “annoying the police”. There was no such offence. The person would usually be charged with disorderly behaviour or breaching the peace. These disorder offences which include obscene language, are so subjective and contextual that use of them I’d really an abuse in itself. They are really just “annoying the police” or a catch-all or a pocket charge or something you kept up your sleeve when you wanted to solve a problem. When I first joined the police we dealt with some interesting and archaic offences such as being a rogue and vagabond and loitering with felonious intent. These dated back to 1908 and were only repealed in 1981.

  8. Philip Anderson said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 6:58 am

    How well defined were “un-American activities”?

    While it’s not uncommon for people to be arrested for vague offences in the UK, most of those cases don’t result in charges, or charges are dropped before they go to court. And then a magistrate or jury need to be convinced.

  9. John Swindle said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 7:47 am

    @Philip Anderson: "Un-American activities" were an area of concern in the 1950s USA and were investigated by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, which hounded people with accusations of Communist Party membership or Communist activity or sympathy. I don't know that there was a law against "un-American activities" as such in that era. If not, that would be a difference from the proposed Chinese law.

    Today in various countries people who oppose their governments are accused of "terrorism." The term never seems to apply to activities of the governments themselves. The Chinese government may be reserving it for Uyghurs.

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 7:52 am

    Devil's advocate here: There _is_ an acceptable, non-fascistic method of fairly employing "catch-all" offenses (btw, the phrase "pocket crime" does work if you think of it as a law you're not going to use right away, but put into your "pocket" until you need it).

    Sometimes somebody is doing something wrong, and you need to get them to stop doing that thing, but there's no law "on the books" for exactly that thing. For example, in most jurisdictions, there's no specific offense against "public urination" — it's not really "littering" and it's not "indecent exposure" because you're not doing it to get your jollies. So, they get you for a summary disorderly conduct charge, you pay your fine, and everybody's happy.

    …but that's only because everybody agrees that piddling on public streets and edifices corrodes the construction material, makes your whole city smell like San Francisco, and is, therefore, a "bad thing". Without a pre-existing social contract of constitutional democracy and something like the U.S. First Amendment, however, the "law" is whatever the sovereign says it is.

  11. John Swindle said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 8:15 am

    One of the difficulties in talking about "harming the feelings of the Chinese people" is that it sounds ridiculous. The original "伤害中华民族感情" seems a little less ridiculous and more ominous. Is a better translation available? "Lèse-majesté" isn't quite right.

  12. Yandoodan said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 10:26 am

    Benjamin E. Orsatti: "…there's no specific offense against 'public urination…'"

    In the US, people peeing in public can be arrested for indecent exposure, a very specific law with multiple elements that all have to be fulfilled.

    The most infamous catchall law in the US was "vagrancy", meant as a reason to put homeless people ("hobos") in jail. Many jurisdictions, however, used it to punish black men for standing around. Hobos called it "mopery", defined as "exposing yourself to a blind man." It was sometimes called "mopery with the intent of "dopery". Vagrancy laws were generally outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1972 (Papachristou v. Jacksonville) as too vague.

    The thing to note about US catchalls like vagrancy is that, unlike the Chinese law, they are restricted catchalls. You may have been able to use it to arrest a black man for standing on a street corner, but you couldn't use it to arrest someone for writing a book criticizing a government policy.

  13. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 12:01 pm

    To review, a draft law in the PRC proposed to outlaw "wearing clothes and accessories in public places" or say "producing … remarks" that "are detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation etc." — and public commentary was compelled to focus on the problem that being "detrimental to the spirit…" was a bit vague.

  14. Matt said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 5:37 pm

    A relatively recent case in Australia involved someone who was pulled over by police for speeding on a major freeway. While pulled over, a truck lost control and hit the police cars, killing 4 police officers.

    Rather than calling for help and trying to assist the police officers, the person who was originally pulled over took out their phone and started filming and mocking the police as they were dying, laughing and telling them they got what they deserved, etc.

    After trying to work out what laws were actually broken, they were charged with and eventually jailed for “outraging public decency”, which was described in the media at the time as an “archaic” law that still existed but hadn’t been used for decades.

    It is apparently part of common law that we inherited from the UK, and according to Wikipedia, still exists in England and Wales.

    These kinds of vague catch-all laws exist in a lot of places. “Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” sounds like a childish way to describe “Outraging public decency”.

    The bigger issue is how often they are used, and what kind of independent court system is in place to safeguard against their abuse. On that front, you get a fair indicator of China’s intent by seeing how it is used as their ridiculous go-to phrase in international relations.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 8:06 pm

    Here's hoping that speaking topolects and minority languages don't hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 8:30 pm

    The thing to note about US catchalls like vagrancy is that, unlike the Chinese law, they are restricted catchalls. You may have been able to use it to arrest a black man for standing on a street corner, but you couldn't use it to arrest someone for writing a book criticizing a government policy.

    This idea appears to be in tension with the fact that people are worried about this proposed new law, despite the existence of a law against "making trouble".

    Why would China need a second catchall crime?

  17. Rodger C said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 11:54 am

    Matt: Does Australia not have a crime called "failure to assist at an accident"?

  18. Matt said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 5:59 pm

    @Rodger: We have a law for “failing to stop and assist”, but that only applies to those involved in an accident (i.e. drivers of the vehicles involved).

    As this person was technically a bystander in the accident — their car was also damaged, but they were not a driver of the vehicle at the moment of the crash because they had got out of their car — then that crime didn’t apply.

  19. william holmes said,

    September 25, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    I don't believe comments have yet focused on the possible interplay between the new "pocket crimes" (on the one hand) and the "social credit system" and the mooted national database on which "social credit" scores and data would be digitized (on the other). While I am not current on the status of these schemes, they would have the evident potential to extrapolate penalties for the "pocket crimes" well beyond their enumerated terms (to lifetime on a digital blacklist?). This concern would be accentuated if (as commentators are warning) the proposed "pocket" clauses were enforceable at the discretion of a cop on the street.

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