Blurring lines of legality lead to strange types of criminal

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-1 18:58:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Wu Hongfei, a journalist-turned writer and rock singer, is in trouble. She was arrested last week after ranting on Weibo to public fury.

Wu's attorney said the outspoken singer simply ranted out of rage, and that she had committed no crime. Supporters are calling for her release.

China is not short of victims who get themselves in trouble because of what they say. The reaction to Wu's arrest could make her look like the latest casualty in a country where different opinions are not often tolerated. Except for one thing: What Wu posted was not an opinion but more of a call to action.

In her Weibo entry, she said "the places I want to bomb include the residential committee of the Beijing Personnel Exchange Center, and the housing commission…"

She quickly followed it up with another entry to try and clarify her meaning. She came up with a nonsensical apology, saying that she had meant to say she wanted to "fry" food at the McDonald's beside the residential committee of the Beijing Personnel Exchange Center.

The words for "bomb" and "fry" in China are synonyms but her excuse made no sense and was a feeble attempt to explain away the scandal her previous post had wrought. But it was all too late as she is now facing up to five years in prison for "fabricating false terrorism information."

The nature of her post brings Wu closer to some young people who have landed themselves in similar trouble in the US than to dissidents in China.

At this moment, there are at least two Americans in jail for posting similar comments while playing online video games.

One of them, 20-year-old Josh Pillault, was arrested in October after responding to the insults of another gamer by saying he would not only kill himself but would shoot up a local high school. He pleaded guilty to a "domestic terrorism" charge in June.

Another young man, 19-year-old Justin Carter, after saying he wanted to "shoot up a kindergarten" also typed "LOL" and "J/K", acronyms for "laughing out loud" and "joke," to indicate he was being sarcastic.

Still, he has been in jail since February, facing a charge of "making terrorist threats," which could see him sentenced to up to eight years in prison.

There is some support for the two. A petition for their presidential pardon on the White House's website posted on July 4, had collected just 137 signatures by Monday, far less than the 100,000 it needs by August 3 for the president to respond. But the petition Carter's family posted on calling for his release has collected over 200,000 signatures.

The US boasts about its freedom of speech, which many people in China are longing for. But a common challenge both countries are facing is not related to the freedom of speech, but that of a constantly changing world, where the boundaries between what is appropriate or not, right and wrong, legal and illegal are constantly shifting.

Drinking and driving was once tolerated. Now it can lead to prison. Smoking in public in a city like New York used to be the norm, but it can now get you fined. Having same-sex relationships used to be prohibited. Now it is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle.

The same happens to the boundary between silly jokes and serious public threats.

Before Ji Zhongxing, who ignited a bomb in Beijing Capital International Airport right before Wu posted her doomed entry, before Sandy Hook where 26 primary school students and teachers were killed by a crazy gunman, and before the 9/11 attacks, what Wu, Carter and Pillault said might have shocked people at most.

If they had been locked up, the public would have reasonably cried foul.

Unfortunately, it is a different world now. Nobody is willing to take any risks and see another tragedy claim the lives of innocent people.

The fluid nature of behavior codes can be confusing. Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned crystal meth cook in Breaking Bad, tells his law enforcement brother-in-law while the two were sharing a beer and some Cuban cigars: "You know, if we were drinking this in 1930, we'd be breaking the law. Another year we'd be OK. Who knows what will be legal next year? … It's arbitrary."

There is some truth in that. But we need to remember that most of us are judged by the present rather than by history.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

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