A Game Designer in Beijing Bought Toy Guns. China Imprisoned Him.

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 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 a person 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.