When the police swarmed into San Cheng’s apartment in Beijing late at night and accused him of illegally buying guns, he was sure it was a mix-up.
True, he had bought dozens of toy guns on Taobao, the Alibaba shopping site, as props for his business designing shoot-em-up games for smartphones. But the seemingly harmless replicas were so cheap and easily purchased, Mr. Cheng said, that he thought owning them could not be a crime.
He was wrong. Mr. Cheng, 47, a Taiwanese American game designer, ended up spending three years in detention and prison. In detention, he said, he met 20 or so other men who had also been arrested in a police sweep against buying replica guns online.
China has some of the world’s toughest weapons laws, including broad definitions of what counts as an illegal gun. But Mr. Cheng’s experience shows how wildly expansive the rules can be, potentially punishing people for buying toy or replica guns that are widely available online.
“They’re China’s biggest digital retailing platform,” Mr. Cheng said, referring to Taobao, in an interview from New Jersey, where he has been recovering after his release from a Chinese prison last year. “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.”
The Chinese authorities have mostly prosecuted the buyers of such items, and to a lesser extent, the sellers, according to a search of an online nationwide database of court judgments. But the online shopping platforms where these sales take place have rarely been targeted, and it is unclear how much legal responsibility companies like Alibaba have in such situations.
In Taobao’s terms of service, Alibaba warns shoppers that they are buying from third-party merchants, which means the company cannot possibly guarantee that each and every product is safe, high-quality and legal. Alibaba declined to comment.
Mr. Cheng and other campaigners have urged the authorities to turn up the pressure on China’s online shopping sites rather than jail ill-informed buyers.
China’s strong gun controls mean that fatal shootings are rare, and many citizens support the laws to keep it that way. But there has been a growing debate over the legal definition of a firearm. Experts say that China’s regulations — which ban buying, selling or owning weapons above a very low threshold of force — are vague and hard for laypeople, even judges, to understand. The result, critics say, is that unsuspecting buyers of compressed-air and spring-powered toys are turned into criminals.
China’s gun control law of 1996 states that to be legally classified as a gun, a weapon has to be capable of killing someone or knocking them unconscious. But in 2010, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security imposed far stricter rules that in effect defined many toys as illegal guns. Under the rules, a toy gun that fires a projectile with enough force to tear a sheet of newspaper — far short of lethal or dangerous force — can be considered a gun, according to lawyers.
In a study published in 2019, investigators from China’s Public Security University found that nearly all of a random sample of 229 replica guns bought online would be classified as illegal under the 2010 rules.
“These toy guns are openly sold in Hong Kong, but in the mainland they’re treated as weapons and ammunition,” said Wang Jinzhong, whose son was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hebei Province, northern China, in 2016, for owning 16 replicas that the police deemed illegal.
“Frankly, there are many things more dangerous than these toys,” said Mr. Wang, who has petitioned judges and officials for his son, Wang Yinpeng, 37, to be released. “This really is a human rights disaster for China.”
Chinese regulators have demanded over the years that Alibaba be more proactive about stopping various kinds of illegal goods from being sold on its digital bazaars. In 2015, the country’s market watchdog accused the company of turning a blind eye to sales of fake alcohol and cigarettes, knockoff designer bags and “items that endanger public safety,” such as certain knives. Alibaba called the regulator’s findings “flawed” and filed a complaint.
When it comes to objects that might count as illegal firearms, Taobao warns customers about the risks, though somewhat inconsistently. Searching for “replica gun” on the platform yields no results — only a warning message about China’s gun laws. But tweak the search term — to, say, “gun toy replica” — and Taobao displays plenty of replica handguns and rifles.
Zhou Yuzhong, a lawyer in southern China who specializes in defending people accused of buying illicit guns, said the key problem was that the definition of a gun is so technical in China that special equipment is needed to judge if a product is illegal.
“It’s very hard for sellers and consumers to see at a glance whether a gunlike object crosses the threshold,” Mr. Zhou said. That makes it just as difficult for Taobao and other e-commerce sites to police listings for illegal guns as it is for shoppers to avoid buying them.
Some Chinese police bureaus and consumer associations have offered simple advice for anyone considering purchasing toy guns online: just don’t.
Mr. Cheng, the Taiwanese American game developer, said that the other inmates and detainees he met — who included military hobbyists and parents — had also bought their replicas on the internet. “Most were dads who had bought them for their kids,” Mr. Cheng said.
Mr. Cheng said that he bought his guns in 2016 to use them as models for designing first-person shooting games. His account was supported by Paula Friedman, a poet and writing coach who befriended Mr. Cheng and his wife when they were living in the United States.
“I got no indication from him or from her that he had any interest in guns,” Ms. Friedman, who helped the couple after Mr. Cheng’s arrest, said in an interview from California. “That was never a part of their lives.”
Until a judge announced he was guilty and sentenced him, Mr. Cheng had felt confident he would be freed, he said. The court, though, accepted the police accusations, which Mr. Cheng said unfairly painted him as a “gun nut” and exaggerated the threat of his toy guns. He had never fired them, he said.
In China, lawyers, judges and even members of the legislature have pushed back against the country’s gun laws for years, arguing that they were leading to cases of unjustified imprisonment.
China’s highest court and prosecution office sought to ease the problem by issuing guidance in 2018 advising legal authorities to take into account how harmful suspected illegal guns really are, and buyers’ intentions in acquiring them.
Since that official guidance, judgments in gun cases “haven’t been as rigid as before,” said Mr. Zhou, the lawyer. Many defendants are now given suspended sentences, meaning they will not go to prison unless they reoffend, court records indicate.
Still, the authorities continue to crack down on guns and replicas, recently launching a campaign in May. And even if those found guilty are spared prison time, they must live with a criminal record and the stigma that comes with it.
Mo Zhicheng, a retired driving instructor in the southern city of Guangzhou, said he had been appealing unsuccessfully for the conviction of his son to be overturned. His son had bought six toy guns more than a decade ago, when he was a teenager.
“He wants to find work but can’t find any now,” Mr. Mo said. “When they see he has a gun possession conviction, nobody dares employ him.”
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