For many mainlanders, freedom of speech and of the press, and the right to vote, are lofty ideals that few expect to enjoy. Many are content with the pragmatic freedom to live in a safe society and be able go about their daily lives free of harassment and the fear of being detained.
So it was no surprise that people were shocked to read last week of a man who had been detained by police for three days in Henan province after he was found carrying a folding fruit knife on the street.
The Henan Business Daily reported on Thursday that the man was taken to a police station by an undercover officer after getting off a bus with his friend. The sharp-eyed policeman noticed the man had a small folding knife attached to his keychain. The officer informed him that it was illegal to carry such a knife in public, and by law the man was detained for three days.
The man, a local factory worker named Wu Weichun, told the paper that he was confounded by his detention. He said he had bought the knife legally at a supermarket but did nothing dangerous with it.
"I use it to peel fruit," the man was quoted as saying. "Does this means the supermarket can sell it but I can't buy it?"
The local police take a different view. They told the paper they were merely doing their job and upholding a law stating that unauthorised people found carrying "restricted" knives in public can be fined up to 500 yuan (HK$620) or detained for five to 10 days.
The Chinese press has devoted much space to discussing the broader implications of this incident. A piece in the China Youth Daily warned that it set a precedent that anyone who bought fruit or kitchen knives from the market and tried to take them home could find themselves in the police lock-up instead.
"If police are free to define 'restricted knives' as they see fit, and punish anyone they want to, then it is the police who are disturbing public order, not Mr Wu," the paper said. "Once police abuse their powers, no citizen can feel secure."
Seeking middle ground, The Beijing Times wrote that "it is equally important to restrict police powers and knives", saying police needed to respect citizens' rights when enforcing laws. It said police should act in accordance with the situation instead of simply denying a person's freedom.
Beijing Youth Daily ran colour pictures of various restricted knives. It also interviewed Beijing police officers who insisted such a case would not happen in the capital city. "We would use gentler methods, such as lecturing the accused instead of placing them in detention," a local police officer said.
The story soon eclipsed other hot issues on social media, sparking a surprisingly candid discussion among many internet users who said they were fed up with arbitrary and often violent law enforcement by police.
"I'm so shocked. This means we can all get detained easily by the police. Do we Chinese still have basic freedom and pride? We don't expect to have the same freedom as Americans, but I thought at least we could carry a simple fruit knife," read a popular post on Sina Weibo that was reposted thousands of times. "Is our government lacking confidence?"
Peng Hong , a Chongqing resident who was sent to a labour camp for two years for forwarding a political cartoon online, mocked his fellow internet users' surprise. "If the same thing happened in Chongqing under the rule of Bo Xilai , he could be sentenced to a year or two in a labour camp. Three days? That's nothing."
Despite the indignation sparked by the Wu incident, knives are a growing problem on the mainland.
Perhaps the best diagnosis of this state of affairs came from an unnamed Weibo blogger: "Governments use weapons to maintain order. Rebels use them to challenge authority."