A Taiwanese American game developer spent three years in Chinese custody after authorities determined that he had bought illegal toy guns online.
How it happened: San Cheng, 47, reportedly purchased dozens of toy guns on shopping site Taobao in 2016. He wanted to use them as models for his work creating first-person shooting games.
- Cheng allegedly did not realize that owning the cheap, seemingly harmless and easily available replicas was a crime until Beijing police arrested him in his apartment. A trial found him guilty and landed him three years in detention and prison, The New York Times reported.
- Cheng was convicted under China’s strict gun control law — one of the world’s toughest — which has long been criticized for both its ambiguity and technicality. In 2010, the Ministry of Public Security redefined a “gun” to include the ability to fire a projectile with a force of 1.8 joules per square centimeter or greater, as per the South China Morning Post, or a force capable of exactly tearing a sheet of paper, according to the NY Times.
- The law effectively designated many toy guns as illegal guns, this following a previous 1996 legal definition that required a weapon be capable of readily inflicting injury, causing death or rendering someone unconscious for it to be classified as a gun.
- In 2016, a 20-year-old man in Fujian Province was sentenced to life imprisonment for owning 20 illegal toy guns. “Shoot me with my guns. I will plead guilty if they are capable of killing me!” he screamed in desperation, according to the Global Times. Amid a public outcry, his sentence was reduced to seven years in 2018, the South China Morning Post reported.
The big picture: Cheng now lives in New Jersey after being released last year. Along with other campaigners, he has urged Chinese authorities to instead exert pressure on shopping sites, which are rarely targeted in their sale of toy guns.
- “They’re China’s biggest digital retailing platform,” Cheng told the NY Times of Taobao, which is owned by Alibaba. “People just don’t understand that they’re illegal, because if you go on to Taobao and search for toy guns, you’ll get so many recommendations.”
- Taobao reportedly warns customers about the risks of buying toy guns, albeit inconsistently. According to the NY Times, searches for “replica gun” on the platform return a warning message on gun laws, but “gun toy replica” yields a rich listing of products.
- Zhou Yuzhong, a lawyer who specializes in defending suspects accused of buying illegal guns, says the problem comes down to the law’s technical definition.
“By the 1.8 joules per square centimeter definition, the bullets can barely create a bruise on the human skin let alone shed any blood,” he told Global Times in 2016.
- The state-run Global Times attributes the country’s strict gun laws to its “anxiety toward social uprisings.”
Featured Image (representation only) via CCTV Society and Law