Anyone who has lived in China has been warned of cases like this – a pedestrian jumps in front of a moving car or falls to the ground near a bike or motorbike, claiming to be injured and demanding compensation. The ‘victim’ may cling to them or their vehicle, or just lay on the ground in exaggerated agony. They may have accomplices planted in the crowd that inevitably gathers urging the driver to pay, or even a friendly doctor waiting to assess their ‘injuries’.
Personal injury fraud isn’t unique to China, nor is the public glee when fraudsters are exposed — if internet videos are any indication. In the U.S., this cynical attention usually focuses on staged slip and fall cases, but in China it’s the notorious “Pengci (碰瓷)” who fake accidents to extort compensation. Pengci literally means ‘porcelain bumping’ and refers to the feigned fragility of the professional victims.
The cases unfortunately are much less amusing to those being extorted, and they also undermine the credibility of legitimate victims. While it’s unclear how pervasive the pengci phenomenon actually is, it is a very real threat in the public imagination and one that also undermines faith in the legal system, as it seems to be exploiting traffic law to harm normal citizens. This may be why China’s criminal justice authorities have now released new guidance on how to mobilize criminal penalties to punish such scams.
The new opinions on punishing pengci crimes clarify that a range of different charges should be explored based on the specific facts of the case, and identify a few common pengci tactics:
- blaming drivers for injuries on oneself or by accomplices, or for pre-existing injuries.
- faking accidents with victims who have something to hide, such as drunk drivers, unlicensed drivers, unregistered vehicles, or those running lights so that they will be afraid to have the police involved.
- Resorting to more direct threats of violence when called out on faking injuries
It’s clear that the guidelines are meant to send a signal to the public that these cases will be taken seriously and to alert the criminal justice authorities to take action against them. It is less clear what their lasting impact will be. Stricter enforcement could potentially lead to a greater deterrence, but all of this conduct was already illegal and the pengci prey on victims’ reluctance to involve the authorities.
There is also a question of whether an overzealous pursuit of pengci could make it harder for actual victims to pursue their cases. The Opinions mention the need to correctly understand legal standards to distinguish normal civil disputes, but don’t actually provide any guidance on what those standards are, or how they should be applied.