New amendments recently in force to China's criminal law have added more than 20 crimes to the statute book, including many critics say could further erode freedom of speech and place even more power in the hands of the state.
The amendments, effective Sunday, make it a crime to 'insult a judge,' 'disrupt court order,' post 'rumors' online and cheat in exams, while scaling back the death penalty on some crimes.
New criminal offenses include "fabricating, deliberately transmitting false information" online, "incitement to terrorism and extremism," and "preparing for an act of terrorism."
"Forcing someone to wear extremist clothing or tokens" is also listed, which follows a lengthy campaign to prevent the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group from wearing veils, beards or other traditional clothing.
"Disrupting the work of public bodies" and "organizing or aiding illegal gatherings" are among the new crimes, which could be used to target rights activists and petitioners who complain against the government.
Meanwhile, China's embattled legal profession could be further hampered by the addition of crimes such as "disrupting order in a court" and "reporting or revealing information about cases not made public."
Anyone bringing a civil case based on "a distorted version of the truth" could face three to seven years in prison, which could affect the thousands of petitioners who lodge complaints against official wrongdoing daily.
And in a bid to tackle rising academic fraud, exam cheats may be jailed for three to seven years.
Targeting public expression
Online freedom of speech activist Wu Bin said many of the new crimes appear to target freedom of public expression.
"The purpose of adding these crimes is to forestall any protesting voices and to stifle freedom of expression among ordinary people," Wu told RFA.
"This is what they are legislating for ... there isn't a single crime that is aimed at officials," he said.
Guangzhou-based commentator Ye Du agreed. "They want to carry out thought-purification using the law, and totally wipe out any voices on the Internet," he said.
"They want to bring the entire Internet under the control of the government and the party," Ye said.
Xinjiang-based rights activist Hu Jun said a number of the newly designated crimes are poorly defined, meaning they can easily be exploited to justify detaining anyone the authorities don't like.
"The things they mention here are all extremely vague, making it so easy to bring these charges against someone," Hu said.
"There is a lot of messed up logic and ridiculous thinking in the Chinese Communist Party," he said.
No rule of law without change
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said large numbers of ordinary Chinese protesting over forced evictions and land grabs might well accuse the government of "terrorism."
"Such actions are never officially designated terrorism, but from the point of view of ordinary people, forced evictions and land grabs are acts of terrorism," Huang said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Chen Jiangang said he holds out scant hope for any rule of law in China in the absence of systemic political change.
"There will be no rule of law without a change in the system," Chen said. "Our laws exist on paper only, because China has no judicial independence, and without it there are no checks and balances."
"The government decides the limits of the laws, then it announces them, and it also enforces them," Chen said. "Now there are no channels for the redress of grievances, and no channels for people to seek help."
"If the power of the state comes for you, they can send you straight to prison."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.