Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Xinjiang State Security Trials Flat, Criminal Trials Soar in 2014

Sentences are announced for 55 defendants, including some convicted of splittism, a state security crime, at a public sentencing rally in Xinjiang's Ili Prefecture on May 27, 2014. Image Credit: voachinese.com

Xinjiang’s high court recently reported that, as compared with 2013, the number of endangering state security (ESS) trials in Xinjiang was flat in 2014. A graph included in the court’s annual work report and Dui Hua estimates released last year indicate that about 300 ESS trials of first instance were concluded in Xinjiang in each year. ESS trials can be used as a proxy for the suppression of human rights activism since several of the crimes in the ESS category are constituted by certain kinds of speech and association.

A significant jump in the number of overall criminal trials indicates, however, that even without growth in ESS trials, authorities heightened the suppression of human rights activism and dissent in Xinjiang. The number of criminal trials concluded in the region soared more than 40 percent to 29,511 trials, including those of first and second instance. Kicked off in May 2014, Xi Jinping’s “anti-terrorism” campaign likely played a significant role in increased law enforcement.

Concluded First-instance Criminal Trials in Xinjiang by Crime Category, 2013 & 2014

Sources: Dui Hua; Xinjiang High People’s Court Annual Work Report, 2015

Concluded First-Instance ESS Trials in Xinjiang, 2010-2014

Note: Figures for 2012-2014 are estimates made by Dui Hua; all other data were reported by Xinjiang authorities.
Sources: Dui Hua; Xinjiang High People’s Court Annual Work Report, 2011-2015; Xinjiang Yearbook, 2011-2013

Three categories of crimes accounted for the bulk of the annual increase in criminal trials. Trials for obstructing social administrative order doubled to exceed 4,500. This category of crimes can be used to target unauthorized Islamic and Christian groups or "cults" and covers activities including the distribution of religious materials as well as assemblies and demonstrations.

Trials for infringing upon citizens' personal and democratic rights almost doubled nearly reaching 7,500. This category of crimes includes the offense of "inciting racial hatred and discrimination," which may be applied to people who disseminate information that "tarnishes" China's ethnic harmony by, for example, challenging government bans on beards, veils, and religious observance.

Naming Names

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database includes the names of about a dozen people convicted of ESS crimes in Xinjiang in 2014. Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar sentenced to life in prison for splittism, is the most well known. Seven of his students also went to trial for their involvement in the operation of Uyghur news site uighurbiz.net. All were convicted of splittism, and four were sentenced to 3-8 years' imprisonment. Luo Yuwei (罗玉伟), a member of the Yi ethnic group, received the shortest sentence of three years, according to prominent Chinese lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. Luo joined Perhat Halmurat and Shohret Tursun in a televised confession, presumably under duress, last November. The other students convicted in the case are Abdukeyum Ablimit, Mutellip Imin, Akbar Imin, and Atikem Rozi, the only woman in the group.

In a lesser-known splittism case, Reyim Abuliz was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in Ili Prefecture. She was involved in one of the 11 cases of Communist Party members and civil servants punished for violating political discipline. The teacher was accused of using China’s mobile instant messaging app WeChat to send “sensitive” pictures and audio materials to a number of individuals.

Last May, state news media reported that five Uyghurs, whose names were not fully revealed, were convicted of splittism and sentenced to 7-15 years' imprisonment in a public sentencing rally in Kashgar Prefecture. They were condemned in front of 300 cadres and students for disseminating information about hijrah and jihad through mobile and online networks and for "indoctrinating" young children in "extremism" in unauthorized religious classes.

Zhao Haitong (赵海通) was the only Han Chinese known to have been convicted of ESS in Xinjiang in 2014. He was convicted of inciting subversion, and possibly other crimes, and sentenced by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court to 14 years in prison. Zhao actively participated in a series of small-scale protests against Internet censorship and miscarriages of justice and called for officials to disclose their assets. A Guangzhou-based lawyer has claimed that Zhao’s case was related to Xinjiang’s “ethnic issues.”

Xinjiang typically accounts for the majority of China’s ESS trials, however, official data has yet to be released showing whether the nation’s ESS trial numbers grew in 2014. That said, in 2013 ESS indictments showed strong annual growth with 32 percent more individuals indicted in 57 percent more cases.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Article 293: Deeming Free Speech Disorder in Internet Space

Prior to his arrest for "creating a serious disturbance," Pu Zhiqiang (bottom right) joins others to discuss June Fourth at a private home in Beijing.

In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) jointly issued a judicial interpretation addressing a number of issues related to criminal speech online. That interpretation held that use of information networks “to berate or intimidate others,” “to disseminate false information . . . that one has either invented or clearly knows to be fabricated,” and “to organize or incite others to disseminate [such information]” should be punished under Article 293 of the Criminal Law, “creating a serious disturbance.”

This marked a major elaboration of Article 293, which is also known by its literal translation, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Prior to the interpretation, the offense had targeted a variety of behaviors deemed to be disruptions to social order, such as fighting, looting, throwing rocks or refuse at vehicles or buildings, or otherwise stirring up trouble in public spaces. Now, the interpretation seems to have expanded the definition of “public space” to include online space, treating it not only as a platform through which to incite others to disrupt social order but as a kind of public space itself that can be thrown into disorder by certain kinds of acts.

Since September 2013, a growing list of Chinese people have been detained or charged for speech-related incidents under the provisions of Article 293. Perhaps the most well-known is the crusading rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, whose initial detention for “creating a serious disturbance” appeared to be connected to a private meeting to discuss issues related to June Fourth. According to recent reports, however, it appears that the authorities may also be trying to prosecute Pu under Article 293 (in addition to even more serious speech-related charges, including “inciting subversion” and “inciting splittism”) for a series of items he posted on social media.

Prosecutors in Zhengzhou, Henan, also recently presented an indictment for “creating a serious disturbance” against Yu Shiwen, a former student leader during the 1989 democracy movement who was arrested last year in connection with a public memorial commemorating former leaders Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang and those who died in the June Fourth crackdown. The authorities appear to have been unaware that the memorial had taken place until Yu and other participants posted photographs online and gave interviews to overseas media.

Critics have argued that the judicial interpretation by the SPC and SPP is improper because by significantly expanding the scope under which Article 293 can be applied, it has ventured into the jurisdiction of China’s legislature. Peking University’s Zhang Qianfan recently took up the argument from a position defending the freedom of expression. In a blog post that has been widely republished on numerous Chinese-language websites, the liberal constitutional law scholar warns that overemphasis on preventing disorder in virtual space risks undermining what is not only a fundamental human right but also an essential component of ensuring proper governance. He describes Article 293 as a “pocket crime”—an offense so vaguely defined that nearly anything can be stuffed into it—and warns that, unless the boundaries are tightened up, even more Chinese citizens are likely to fall victim to arbitrary and abusive uses of offenses like these.

Don’t Let “Creating a Serious Disturbance” Become a “Pocket Crime”

Zhang Qianfan
February 5, 2015

Over the past year, the offense of “creating a serious disturbance” (Article 293 of the Criminal Law) has been applied more and more often in cases involving speech by citizens. Legal scholars are widely concerned that this offense has already become a “pocket crime” whose borders can be extended at will. This not only violates the principles of “governing the country in accordance with the law” and “governing the country in accordance with the constitution” that were promoted at the Fourth Plenum of the Eighth Chinese Communist Party Conference; it will also inevitably lead to serious abuses of state power and an extreme restriction of citizens’ freedom of expression that is protected under Article 35 of China’s constitution.

In a certain respect, we can consider the state as a supremely powerful Hobbesian “Leviathan,” but this Leviathan does not have a will of its own. On the contrary, it is a product of human reason. We establish the state and invest it with such huge powers so that it may control the irrationality of private individuals and prevent their using violence to harm others. At its most basic, the function of the state is to use its monopoly of lawful violence to control the unlawful violence committed by private individuals. The criminal law is the main means by which the state carries out this basic function, and police are the specific force through which the criminal law is enforced. You could say that it is a limb of the Leviathan. For rational people, limbs must be controlled by the brain. If the brain loses control, then the limbs can move wildly on their own in a dangerous manner. The same is true with the state.

What is the “brain” of the state? The “brain” of the state is the public reason expressed through its laws. In a healthy state under ordinary conditions, law exists to serve the common interests of all people. But what exactly is the “common interest”? What sort of policies, laws, or institutions bring the greatest happiness to people? There can be no single answer to these questions, and since each person has freedom of thought and expression, no person can claim that he alone possesses the truth. So-called public reason is a social consensus that is formed in the course of free discussion, meaning that free expression is an institutional precondition for the production of public reason. Of course, total consensus is impossible, because no viewpoint can secure the agreement of every single person in society. We must be able to cast votes to determine the majority position at any time and use this as the basis for the laws that govern us. Only such laws can be considered “good laws” that express public reason. Public reason of this kind is bound to be flawed and can only attain perfection through practice. But it is inevitably far superior to any private individual reason—because humans are rationally self-interested, individual reason can only serve particular individuals. Only public reason formed in the context of free expression can serve the entire society.

We can only live in a reasonable state if we enforce good laws, implement the rule of law, and allow our public reason “brain” to control the limbs of the state. On the other hand, if the limbs take control of the brain and prevent the brain from thinking in a normal way—or if individual reason is allowed to replace public reason and the machinery of the state is used to suppress and “manage” speech—then the “arms control the brain” and the state cannot operate normally. Arms can only control arms. State violence can only be used to control violence by private individuals and not to govern speech.

Of course, if speech truly threatens to incite an immediate, obvious, and serious danger—for example, if a person spreads panic in a crowded place and causes a stampede—then that sort of speech should be liable for criminal responsibility. But so long as there is no such “clear and present danger” and there is still time to clarify the truth through additional discussion, free speech should be allowed to continue without state power intervening to impose silence.

As long as the state’s “brain” is still capable of ordinary thought, the “arms” must not be allowed to control the “head.” The reason is simple: arms can never be as good at thinking as the head. Likewise, police are no more capable than ordinary people of correct judgments about matters of right or wrong or expertise. When the arms control the head, coercive power is substituted for public reason.

If a criminal offense becomes a “pocket crime” that can be expanded or contracted at will such that it becomes a way of punishing citizens’ speech, then the “arms are controlling the head.” The fourth clause of the offense of “creating a serious disturbance” refers to “stirring up trouble in a public place that creates serious disorder in [that] public place.” Since the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate have expanded the meaning of “public place” to include online space, this clause has often been applied in cases involving citizens’ speech. Looking purely at the text of the statute, there’s no big problem with this offense. Whether it’s speech or acts, if there truly is “serious disorder in a public place,” then the person(s) responsible should be held criminally liable. The problem is how to define “serious disorder in a public place” and, particularly, disorder as applied to the “public space” of the Internet. The Internet is a platform for free expression and it is normal for there to be different opinions expressed there. “Order” in this kind of space connotes a kind of place where one person has all the say. In the “public space” of the Internet, it’s practically impossible for there to be “serious disorder” in the sense of the criminal law. Does crude, acrimonious, and radical online speech that leads to widespread arguments or even abuse constitute “creating a serious disturbance”? Even if you believe in the idea that there is “verbal violence” online, you should not use physical violence to counter verbal violence.

Under ordinary circumstances, the criminal law should only apply to actual violence that takes place in the real world, not virtual “violence” that takes place in the online world—with the exception of online speech that can actually cause “serious disorder in a public place” in the real world. If online speech that does not satisfy this condition is treated as “creating a serious disturbance,” then it is another case of the arms controlling the head.

The analysis above does not simply apply to “creating a serious disturbance” and can be applied to all other “pocket crimes” as well. The unlimited expandability of “pocket crimes” not only restricts citizens’ right to free expression but also can easily lead to abuses of power by local authorities. In China, no matter whether it’s the constitution, laws, or central policies like the Fourth Plenum decision, all are used by central authorities to regulate the behavior of local authorities at all levels. But if the constitution is not implemented fully and laws become pocket crimes to be interpreted arbitrarily by local authorities, then not only is the law unable to serve any normative function but it can actually become a powerful weapon with which local authorities can abuse their power.

For example, in Henan a rights defender named Jia Lingmin provided free legal advice for many years to families who had been forcibly evicted from their homes. She was warmly welcomed by people all over for spreading legal information concerning land seizures and forced evictions. But because she was a thorn in the side of the local authorities, she was framed on charges of “creating a serious disturbance.” However, not only did Jia’s speech not cause any “serious disorder in a public place,” it played an extremely positive role by protecting the lawful rights and interests of evicted households, upholding social stability, and preventing predatory behavior by those with power. Such an abuse of power by local authorities seriously undermines the rule of law and shows flagrant contempt for central authority.

To prevent “creating a serious disturbance” from becoming a “pocket crime,” we must strictly define key legal criteria like “serious disorder in a public place.” The crime should only be constituted in cases where expression has truly caused serious disruption to the order of an actual public place. And in order to constitute “serious disorder,” the speech in question must cause harm that is clear and imminent. If “serious disorder” is simply determined by the subjective conjecture and imagination of those in charge of the case or based on fear of some unpredictable or uncertain outcome, it naturally cannot be considered “serious.”

A classic example is the case of Yu Shiwen and others from Henan who publicly mourned Zhao Ziyang. Zhao Ziyang was originally from Henan, and there is nothing out of the ordinary for people from Henan to mourn other people from Henan. There was no disorder on the scene, and the mourning took place without any interference. It was only when Yu Shiwen and others put a video of the mourning online that they were detained by Henan police. But there is no evidence to prove that these videos caused any disorder in a public place. When investigators make such accusations, they must provide the national public with a convincing explanation in order to prevent the impression that the machinery of state power is being operated by a few arms in order to control 1.4 billion heads.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Court Flaunting of Nian Bin Acquittal Raises Questions of Lessons Learned

Nian Bin reunites with his sister, who built his legal defense team, and uncle after being released from prison in 2014. Image credit: You Jingyou, Weibo

Last August, the Fujian High People’s Court acquitted Nian Bin, a former grocery-store owner sentenced to death in 2008 for allegedly poisoning his neighbors in 2006. The incident led to the deaths of two children. Nian claimed that he confessed to the crime only under the duress of police torture. After more than six years of trial and appeal, Nian’s lawyers were able to prove that police had fabricated evidence against him and withheld other evidence that showed his innocence.

Nian’s case, which has long been in the public spotlight and a focus of anti-death-penalty activists in China, has been hailed as a landmark victory after a long and hard-fought struggle by Nian’s family and lawyers. Some credit for this victory must also go to legal reforms that have changed the environment in which death penalty cases are handled in China. The careful review of the death penalty by the Supreme People’s Court is one factor, as is the increased emphasis that has been placed on the exclusion of confessions extracted through torture or other illegal evidence.

The outcome of Nian Bin’s case may also reflect the attention that Chinese leaders have paid in recent years to the serious problem of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. Because addressing individual cases of injustice is increasingly both a legal and political problem for Chinese courts, it is not surprising that the Fujian High People’s Court chose to make mention of the “positive” impact of the successful resolution of the Nian Bin case in its annual work report to provincial people’s congress deputies. After all, under China’s political system, approval of state institutions’ work by legislative bodies is supposed to serve as an important affirmation of the correctness and legitimacy of that work.

But to commentator Zhu Changjun, writing in the February 2 edition of The Beijing News, the Fujian court’s attempt to take credit for overturning Nian Bin’s conviction inadequately addresses either the factors that contributed to Nian’s wrongful conviction in the first place or the provincial court’s failure to acquit Nian earlier despite identifying serious problems with the prosecution’s case.

Zhu’s concern highlights a general problem faced in trying to evaluate achievement in reform of China’s legal system and human-rights protections. On the one hand, there is a tendency to exaggerate the progressive impact of new policies or legislation before there is concrete evidence that institutions and practices have truly changed for the better. On the other hand, it can often be difficult to say how indicative positive outcomes in individual cases are of systemic change.

This is perhaps a particular problem when the progress in question is so closely linked to the undoing of past mistakes, rather than simply improving upon existing policies and practices. In these cases, as Zhu Changjun suggests, Chinese authorities might earn more credit for their efforts if they were to show with greater transparency how the lessons learned from past miscarriages of justice are being put to use in the reform process.

How Should the Impact of the Nian Bin Case be Recorded?

Zhu Changjun
The Beijing News, February 2, 2015

Overturning the verdict in the Nian Bin case merely reflects the ordinary operation of the judicial system’s mechanisms to correct errors. Correcting these errors is a basic responsibility of a reasonable judicial system. It’s really inappropriate for local high courts to one-sidedly prettify this sort of action in a work report.

According to recent reports citing a number of deputies to the Fujian Provincial People’s Congress, the Nian Bin case, which received a lot of attention in 2014, was mentioned in the work report of the Fujian High People’s Court. In that report, court president Ma Xinlan commented that the court’s “resolution of a number of cases in accordance with the law, including the case against Pingtan resident Nian Bin on charges of poisoning with a hazardous substance, caused a positive impact both legally and socially.”

Nian Bin’s case was a classic example of a miscarriage of justice and received national attention. As such, reversal of the verdict against Nian Bin is of course worth including in the annual work report of the local judicial authorities. But what is the most appropriate way of discussing it? Should it be a full accounting of the lessons learned from how this miscarriage of justice came to pass or simply a comment on the significance of how mistake were ultimately rectified? The answer should be self-evident. The way that judicial authorities have, at least at the current stage, chosen to focus on the “positive impact both legally and socially” of their “resolution of the case in accordance with the law,” deserves further scrutiny and discussion.

One can of course understand the Fujian High People’s Court’s mention of the positive social value of overturning Nian’s wrongful conviction. After all, Nian Bin’s case was finally overturned after eight years of 10 verdicts—four of those carrying a sentence of immediate execution, but this is not simply about restoring justice to a single individual. It allows people to hope for the rectification of even more wrongful convictions, a kind of judicial multiplier effect. To be sure, this has a positive social and legal impact. But it’s rather biased for an annual work report to only reveal and magnify the positive side and fail to reflect the complexity and real external impact of the case.

On multiple occasions, the Fujian high court sent the case back to the intermediate court for retrial on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” This does actually show the high court’s cautious attitude in trying the case. But it’s also worth noting that on June 8, 2009, the Fuzhou Intermediate People’s Court once again sentenced Nian Bin to death for poisoning with a hazardous substance. Once again, Nian appealed the verdict. Only this time, on April 7, 2010, the Fujian high court issued its final ruling, rejecting the appeal and upholding the lower court’s verdict. The case was then sent to the Supreme People’s Court for review of the death sentence in accordance with the law. In other words, the Fujian high court upheld the death sentence against Nian Bin despite its previous findings of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” If it weren’t for the SPC decision to reject the death sentence, Nian Bin’s fate and the outcome of the case would most likely have been completely different.

Moreover, since the Fujian high court found multiple times that the case had “unclear facts and insufficient evidence,” why did it continue to send the case back for retrial time and again instead of directly acquitting Nian Bin? In this respect, even though neglect of supervision over the police investigation stage has enormous relevance to the way the case against Nian Bin developed, the Fujian high court’s role in “correcting errors” clearly shouldn’t be overstated.

It’s even more important to see that by only paying attention to the “social and legal impact” of the case, the Fujian high court takes the position of a cool and detached observer without fully considering the fate of Nian Bin, the victim.

No matter how you approach it, the lessons of the Nian Bin case are all very serious. Overturning the verdict in the case merely reflects the ordinary operation of the judicial system’s mechanisms to correct errors. And correction of the errors in this case was never a foregone conclusion and came only after such great difficulty. If it weren’t for the persistence of Nian Bin’s relatives and lawyers and the decision of the SPC not to approve the death sentence, the outcome would be utterly unimaginable. In summing up the case as a participant, the Fujian high court ought to place its primary emphasis on the lessons and errors that led to this wrongful conviction in the first place. It should offer a deep reflection on and take appropriate responsibility for negligence and flaws in trying the case. To talk so single-mindedly about “impact” and “turning negatives into positives” is not only flippant; it makes it difficult for people to have any faith that the court has learned any lessons about miscarriages of justice.

A miscarriage of justice is a miscarriage of justice, and correcting these errors is a basic responsibility of a reasonable judicial system. It’s really inappropriate to one-sidedly prettify this sort of action in a work report.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Congressional Action on Hong Kong Set to Roil US-China Relations

Hong Kong people demand genuine democracy during a seven-week civil disobedience campaign in 2014. Photo credit: ezone.hk news

Buried in the massive 1,600-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that was signed into law by President Obama on December 16, 2014, is a provision requiring the Department of State to resume reporting under the terms of the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. A report on Hong Kong covering topics such as the development of democratic institutions, change in the exercise of sovereignty, and bilateral relations with the United States must be submitted to Congress no later than January 31. The Department of State is currently drafting the report and will submit it by the deadline imposed by Congress. The last time a report was filed under the Hong Kong Policy Act was in 2007.

Resumption of reporting as provided for in the omnibus spending bill applies only to 2015, but legislation being reintroduced to the House of Representatives by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, would extend reporting for many years to come. The legislation in question is the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), which was originally introduced in both the House and Senate in November 2014. Although it passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the waning hours of the 113th Congress, both the Senate and House adjourned before further action could be taken.

The HKHRDA stipulates that the Department of State file annual reports on conditions in Hong Kong for 10 years, or until “the Secretary of State certifies that Hong Kong has held free and fair elections for two consecutive Chief Executive and two consecutive Legislative Council periods.” Of greater concern to Hong Kong and mainland officials is the stipulation that the Secretary of State issue an annual certification that Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to warrant separate treatment under US law. The Department of State has made clear that it is opposed to this certification requirement. The Hong Kong Policy Act does not require annual certification. It gives the president the discretion to decide whether Hong Kong enjoys the high degree of autonomy called for under both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Between 1993 and 2007, no president exercised the discretion to deny Hong Kong separate treatment.

Congressman Smith is also putting together a Hong Kong Caucus in the House of Representatives. The caucus, which must be approved by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), is expected to hold its first meeting in the coming weeks. At some point, Congressman Smith, possibly accompanied by other caucus members, will seek to visit Hong Kong on a “fact finding mission.” Like all members of Congress, he travels on a diplomatic passport, which means that he will need to get a visa from the Chinese Embassy in Washington in order to do so. Long a critic of China’s human rights record, Congressman Smith has had his applications to visit mainland China rejected on several occasions. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese Embassy will issue a visa to allow him to enter the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). In light of the recent refusal by the Chinese Embassy in London to issue visas to British members of parliament seeking to visit Hong Kong, chances are high that Congressman Smith will not get a visa, something likely to prompt a strong reaction in Washington.

Members of Congress are taking action on Hong Kong in part to support “genuine democracy” (i.e., universal suffrage and an open selection of candidates) in response to the Occupy Central protests that paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for seven weeks from late September to mid-December 2014. They may also be responding to how Hong Kong authorities handled the Edward Snowden affair in June 2013. When the SAR government allowed Snowden to leave Hong Kong for Moscow, it looked to many in Washington that it had done Beijing’s bidding, raising questions about the level of autonomy in Hong Kong.

Although the Chinese government has not made statements on the renewal of reporting and the introduction of the HKHRDA, it is certainly deeply opposed to both. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokewoman stated on September 29, 2014 that “Hong Kong affairs fall entirely within China’s internal affairs. [The ministry] urge[s] relevant countries to be prudent in their words and deeds [and to] refrain [from] interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs in any way.” Chinese leaders believe that foreign governments, led by the United States, were behind Occupy Central. Congressional action on Hong Kong will reinforce this belief.

For now at least, Beijing is content to let the Hong Kong government take the lead in lobbying Congress and the Obama administration not to enact the HKHRDA. The Hong Kong Trade and Economic Commission in Washington is actively meeting with state department officials and congressional staffers. It has enlisted the support of trade organizations who warn of dire consequences if Hong Kong is stripped of separate treatment under US law.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

The HKHRDA has a long way to go before it passes both chambers of Congress and lands on President Obama’s desk. A person involved in the drafting of the bill told Dui Hua that it is not expected to pass both houses of Congress until the summer of 2015—around the time that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council will vote on the political reform package based on the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision issued August 31, 2014.

Once Congressman Smith introduces the HKHRDA, it will receive a number and be referred to committees with jurisdiction, almost certainly the House Foreign Affairs Committee but possibly, since the legislation touches on economic and trade issues, the House Ways and Means Committee as well. Hearings on the bill would likely be held before passage by the full committees, after which it would head to the House for a vote.

The HKHRDA was co-sponsored in the 113th Congress by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), but has yet to find a Senate sponsor in the 114th Congress. Assuming a senator does introduce the bill in the Senate, it would follow a path similar to that in the House. Opposition by the Department of State could cause some Democratic senators to oppose the bill and affect its chances of passage. Assuming the bill does pass both chambers and the version that passes the Senate is different from that which passes the House, a conference of members from both chambers would hammer out a bill that merges the two. Both chambers must in turn pass that bill before it goes to the president for his signature or veto. If President Obama vetoes the bill on the grounds that it removes his discretionary power, two-thirds of the members of both the House and Senate would need to vote to override the veto.

The long process of hearings and debates, denial of visas to American congressmen bent on visiting Hong Kong, and strong statements by the Chinese government that are expected to ensue should make human rights and democracy in Hong Kong a bone of contention in US-China relations for the months ahead. Weeks after the Department of State issues its report at the end of January, the department will issue its country report on China’s human rights record, which contains a section on Hong Kong. In the words of an official involved in writing this year’s report, it will be a “scorcher,” guaranteed to raise hackles in Beijing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

State Security Indictments, Cult Trials Up in Xi Jinping's 2013

Zhao Haitong, seen in a detention center, was reportedly arrested in August 2013 and sentenced to 14 years in October 2014 for crimes including inciting subversion. Zhao was one of many arrested for ESS crimes during 2013, Xi's first year as party secretary. Photo credit: RFA

Statistics recently released in China Law Yearbook (CLY) call into question earlier data reported by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) and indicate that in 2013 indictments for crimes of endangering state security (ESS) reached the second highest level on record. The authoritative compendium typically includes arrest and indictment data for ESS—the category of crimes that comprises the most serious political offenses including subversion, splittism, and their incitement—and for the first time, provides data on the number of trials for cult offenses used to prosecute Falun Gong and other banned religious groups.

In contrast with past editions, the CLY published in 2014 does not refer explicitly to ESS in its accounting of arrests and indictments approved or made by the SPP. These numbers are not difficult to calculate, however, since the SPP work report for 2013 states that ESS statistics are aggregated with those of endangering national defense interests (ENDI) and dereliction of military duty (DMD), and the CLY provides disaggregated data for the latter categories.

This arithmetic shows that in 2013 the SPP indicted 1,384 individuals in 607 ESS cases, up 32 and 57 percent year-on-year, respectively. The number of individuals indicted for ESS in 2013 is the second highest figure reported in the CLY since reporting began in 1998. The highest figure was reached in 2008 when Tibetan protests contributed to a total of 1,407 indictments. Dui Hua’s previous estimate of ESS indictments for 2013 was based on a SPP work report released in March 2014, which may significantly underreport this figure. The higher numbers provided in the CLY are not only more authoritative but more in line with the conditions on the ground. Despite the discrepancy in figures, Dui Hua maintains that in 2013 the procuratorate frequently used other crimes (e.g., “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “illegal assembly”) as proxies for ESS crimes making the increase in ESS indictments all the more staggering.

The change in the number of arrests was less dramatic. We calculate that the SPP authorized public security and state security organs to arrest 937 individuals involved in 532 ESS cases in 2013. Compared with 2012, this represents an 18 percent decrease in individuals arrested but a 12 percent increase in cases. An average of 1.76 and 2.33 individuals were arrested in each ESS case in 2013 and 2012, respectively.

The 2014 CLY does not provide disaggregated data for ESS trials, and unlike the SPP, the Supreme People’s Court does not provide notation that indicates how to arrive at this data. Given substantial growth in the number of ESS indictments nationwide and ESS trials in Xinjiang, where most of these trials occur, Dui Hua believes that there was an increase in the number of ESS trials concluded in China in 2013. We previously estimated that the number of ESS trials in Xinjiang grew 10 percent to 300 trials of first instance in 2013. Nationwide, 369 ESS first-instance trials were concluded in 2012.

A lack of transparency in ESS cases continues to be a serious hurdle to protecting the rights of prisoners of conscience. Of the hundreds of people who faced ESS charges in 2013, only 31 made it into Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) as arrested, indicted, or tried. More than half of them are Tibetans implicated in self-immolation protests. Others are Han Chinese activists who called on government officials to disclose their assets through small-scale street protests. Although Xinjiang typically accounts for the majority of the ESS cases nationwide, we have discovered the names of just three Uyghurs sentenced for inciting splittism in that year.

Known Individuals Facing Endangering State Security Charges, 2013
Name Type (Arrested: A,
Indicted: I, Tried: T)
Province Charge(s) Sentence Release
Abdusalam Abulat
T Xinjiang Inciting splittism 10 years Apr 2023
Abulkerim Mehmet
T Xinjiang Inciting splittism 4 years Apr 2017
A Qinghai Inciting splittism - -
T Sichuan inciting splittism 4 years 2016
T Tibet Inciting splittism 13 years 2026
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 2.5 years May 2015
Gu Yimin
I Jiangsu Inciting subversion 1.5 years Nov 2014
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 4 years Feb 2017
Hortsang Tamdrin
T Sichuan Inciting splittism 4.5 years Oct 2017
Jigme Tanke
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 5 years 2018
Kelsang Dangzhi
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 6 years 2019
Kerem Mehmet
T Xinjiang Inciting splittism 10 years 2023
Kunchok Choephel
T Tibet Inciting splittism 6 years Nov 2019
Liu Benqi
I Qinghai Inciting subversion 3 years Jul 2015
Liu Jiacai
A Hubei Inciting subversion - -
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 6 years 2018
T Qinghai Inciting splittism 4 years 2017
Huang Wenxun
A Hubei Inciting subversion* 4 years Jun 2017
Pema Trinley
T Sichuan Inciting splittism 4 years 2016
T Qinghai Inciting splittism, murder 13 years 2025
Tenzin Rangdol
T Tibet Inciting splittism 5 years Oct 2018
T Tibet Inciting splittism 5 years Oct 2018
Trinley Tsekar
T Tibet Inciting splittism 9 years 2021
T Tibet Inciting splittism 3 years 2016
Wang XX
T Hunan Inciting subversion 3 years Jul 2015
Yang Lin
A Guangdong Inciting subversion - -
Yuan Bing
A Hubei Inciting subversion* - -
Yang Wei
A Guangdong Inciting subversion - -
Yuan Xiaohua
A Hubei Inciting subversion* - -
Zhao Haitong
A Xinjiang Inciting subversion** 14 years Aug 2027
*This charge was later changed to gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic.
** May include other charges. Source: Dui Hua

Known Cult Crime Sentences by Group, 2013

Source: Dui Hua Foundation

Expanding the official picture of prisoners of conscience, the 2014 CLY provides a first-ever accounting of trials of first instance for Article 300: “leading or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” The yearbook said that the number of so-called cult trials rose nearly 60 percent year-on-year to 1,554 trials in 2013.

As compared with information on ESS cases, information on Article 300 cases is typically more accessible. Dui Hua’s PPDB documents about a third (517) of the individuals tried in 2013. Falun Gong accounted for 65 percent of known cases, with Almighty God accounting for 32 percent and unorthodox Protestant sects such as Spirit Sect and Society of Disciples making up about 3 percent.

2013 was Xi Jinping’s first year as party secretary, and in that year, he oversaw roughly three times as many ESS arrests and indictments as Hu Jintao did in 2003, Hu’s first year as party secretary. In Xi’s second year even more people are likely to have faced ESS charges, as policing increased in Xinjiang and the nationwide crackdown on dissent continued.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Feng Zhiming’s Arrest Is Not Enough to Prevent Injustice

Feng Zhiming, lead investigator in the 1996 case against Huugjilt, is under investigation for dereliction of duty. Image credit: CCTV

The Chinese Communist Party’s Fourth Plenum that took place in October was notable for its emphasis on promoting “rule of law” and laying out guiding principles for further reform of the country’s legal system. Events in recent weeks have pushed one subject discussed at the Fourth Plenum into the spotlight: namely, the desire to implement more stringent systems of personal accountability for law-enforcement personnel to help stem the problem of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice.

The face that has lately come to exemplify China’s resolve to address the problem is that of Huugjilt, who as an 18-year-old young man from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, was executed back in 1996 for a rape and homicide he did not commit. Huugjilt became a suspect after he and a friend told police of their discovery of a woman’s dead body in a public toilet. He was brought to justice swiftly on the basis of an alleged confession, with just over two months elapsing between his arrest and eventual execution by gunshot.

In 2005, however, a serial murderer named Zhao Zhiheng confessed to a string of murders, including the one for which Huugjilt had been convicted. When Zhao’s case went to trial the following year, however, he was not charged for that particular murder and the conviction against Huugjilt was left to stand. Fearing that local authorities were trying to cover up evidence of a miscarriage of justice, a Xinhua News Service reporter named Tang Ji wrote up the first of several internal reports on the case intended for the eyes of central authorities.

The following year, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Politico-Legal Committee conducted a review of the case that determined Huugjilt had been wrongly convicted. Over the years that followed, central and regional authorities issued instructions for the case to be reopened, but court officials repeatedly demurred and no one was held responsible for this tragic miscarriage of justice. In fact, as a recent graphic that circulated online makes clear, the main people responsible for seeing Huugjilt’s case through the system went on to receive promotions and commendations.

That nine-year process of legal limbo came to an end abruptly last month, as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region High People’s Court held a new trial in the case that posthumously exonerated Huugjilt of all charges on December 15. Even more dramatic was the announcement days later that Feng Zhiming, the police official who had led the original criminal investigation in 1996, had been placed under arrest by the local procuratorate and was being investigated for dereliction of duty, coercing confessions through torture, and taking bribes.

A spokesperson for the Inner Mongolia High People's Court announces investigation of Feng Zhiming at a December press conference. Image credit: CCTV

While many are hailing this as a victory (albeit belated) for justice, several commentators have greeted the news of Feng’s arrest with a more cautious eye. At issue is how far the accountability drive will go in holding all those responsible for miscarriages of justice like this and whether it will be carried out in ways that promote positive systemic change.

In a recent commentary in The Beijing Times, a frequent legal pundit who writes under the name “Binglin” argues the need for openness and transparency in the process of holding officials accountable for wrongful convictions. For one thing, transparency will facilitate both to ensure that the process is as comprehensive and thorough as possible. Keeping the process in the public eye will also strengthen its effectiveness at molding the behavior of others within law-enforcement.

Accountability for acts carried out in individual cases is perhaps the easy part; much more difficult is to assess responsibility for the deeper institutional causes underlying wrongful convictions—such as the role that inter-institutional “coordination” plays in weakening the procedural checks that are supposed to protect suspects and defendants from miscarriages of justice. The worst outcome would be for accountability in the Huugjilt case to be merely a propaganda effort aimed at convincing the public of authorities’ sincerity at tackling the problem of wrongful convictions. Punishing Feng Zhiming for wrongdoing is only the first step. What’s even more essential is to bring an end to the ways that campaign-style “strike hard” policing and stability-first policies have shaped practices within the Chinese criminal justice system for decades.

Openness Will Encourage Birth of “Wrongful Case Responsibility-Tracing Mechanism”

The Beijing Times, 19 December 2014

When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others. Without strict assurance of open information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

The recent spate of actions taken to redress wrongful judicial decisions has caused a great deal of public excitement. Particularly after the Inner Mongolia [High People’s Court] re-tried the case against Huugjilt and pronounced him innocent, the public has been paying a great deal of attention to the pursuit of accountability in wrongful convictions. So far, the Inner Mongolia Public Security Department, High People’s Court, and Procuratorate have all publicly announced that they have launched investigations into personnel related to the Huugjilt case. The most recent news is that Hohhot Public Security Bureau Deputy Chief Feng Zhiming, who led the special investigative team in Huugjilt’s case, has now been taken into custody by the procuratorate and is under investigation for suspected criminal offenses committed while on the job.

Along the assembly line on which wrongful convictions are manufactured, those parts of the system that are intended to uphold justice frequently fail to do so. From investigative units that are eager to solve cases, to prosecutors who are supposed to screen and examine cases, and to adjudicating bodies responsible for conviction and sentencing—no matter what the reason for the failure might be, objectively speaking, none can easily evade responsibility when there is a wrongful conviction. After enduring a marathon process of petition, re-examination, and re-trial in the Huugjilt case, the swift launch of the legal accountability process is, to a certain degree, a response to the public’s demands and can mark a good beginning of the implementation of a system to trace accountability in wrongful convictions.

But there are also reasons not to be so optimistic. A special team to re-examine Huugjilt’s case was set up back in 2006, so why did it take nine years for this case to get resolved? Was there obstruction to the re-examination? Was it anything that people should be held accountable for? Was responsibility for the wrongful conviction limited to the police, prosecutors, and courts? It is crucial that any accountability system for wrongful convictions be comprehensive, open, and thorough. However, a recent media accounting of 10 wrongful convictions in recent years revealed that, apart from the Zhao Zuohai case (in which five police officers were convicted of coercing confessions through torture), in most of the other cases the decisions about accountability were not revealed to the public. In the case of the Zhejiang man and his nephew wrongly convicted of rape or the five young men from Xiaoshan wrongly convicted of fatal robberies, there were only “internal investigations into accountability,” “the details of which cannot be released.” It is worth questioning seriously just how heavy the sanctions are in such internal accountability investigations and how much they serve as warnings to others handling cases within the law-enforcement system. After all, it is not all that uncommon to see institutions respond perfunctorily to public opinion oversight through such actions as horizontal re-shuffling or even apparent demotions that are actually promotions.

More importantly, non-public and non-transparent accountability processes in response to wrongful convictions are less likely to become subject to public oversight and cause people to suspect that there may be something fishy going on. When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others in the system, who can’t appreciate the severity of the accountability or use the result of the process to regulate their own specific case-handling behaviors. We must realize that when a system for tracing past accountability in wrongful convictions is limited to internal processes within enforcement agencies, sometimes those who ought to be held accountable are actually leading cadres within those agencies. Without strict assurance of public information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

At the end of the day, if you want to prevent the mechanism for tracing past accountability from becoming a sham, there needs to be open and transparent procedural mechanisms and the accountability process itself must be part of what officials are held accountable for. If the response to a wrongful conviction is limited only to payment of state compensation and those “law-enforcers” are never held accountable for causing innocent people to spend time in prison or go to their graves proclaiming their innocence, then this kind of remedy will ultimately fail to bring any improvement to the judicial environment. It will seem to people as if the state is left to foot the bill whenever law-enforcement officials make mistakes, and the gap between power and responsibility will mean that other law-enforcement personnel will learn no lessons from the process.

Accountability is a crucial part of legal justice. The decision of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress clearly called for the implementation of a lifetime responsibility and punishment mechanism for individuals who handle cases within the law-enforcement system and a system to trace accountability in cases of wrongful conviction. These systems are intended to help ensure that cases are handled in a way that can stand up to the scrutiny of both law and history. It might be worth starting with the wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice that have been uncovered in recent years to launch a process of accountability that demonstrates the same resolve and severity shown in the anti-corruption campaign and lets the mechanism for tracing past accountability come into being.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Converting Cult Work: From 610 to Social Service

Set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, the Loving Heart Home is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the reentry rate for detained cult members. Photo credit: An Shu

For more than 15 years, Chinese politico-legal authorities have carried out a wide-ranging campaign against so-called cult organizations that has been coordinated via a network of dedicated units known as “610” (read “six ten”) offices. (These offices are named after the date of the order that founded them: June 10, 1999.) Although the effort to wipe out organizations like Falun Gong or the Almighty God sect has, from time to time, featured prominently in Chinese news coverage, much less has been written about the anti-cult offices or the often-controversial measures they employ.

That changed recently with a long feature published in the September 25, 2014, edition of Southern Weekly. The piece focuses on one particular 610 office in an urban district of Nanjing and the innovations its director, Cheng Dongxiao, has introduced to try to make the work of “converting” (or “de-programming”) cult members more effective and less coercive.

Cheng’s main innovation is the establishment of a center in which “model converts” are responsible for helping to convert exisitng cult members. Mirroring trends in other areas of law enforcement and “comprehensive social management,” this is an example of how China might use a community corrections approach to deal with social problems that in the past have relied on detention measures like reeducation through labor (RTL) or legal education classes. Now that RTL has been eliminated and legal education has come under increased scrutiny for, among other things, its murky legal basis, new approaches like Cheng’s may gain some traction with reformers.

As Cheng himself admits, even if less coercive measures are adopted, there is still an urgent need for clearer legislation to govern the practices associated with anti-cult “conversions,” particularly insofar as these practices involve deprivation of liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article pays no attention to the more fundamental question of whether China’s efforts to eliminate “cults” is justifiable from a human rights standpoint. This standpoint demands that freedoms of opinion be given due consideration in dealing with whatever harmful social consequences these organizations and their members may cause.

As significant as the publication of this unusual article is, it is equally significant to note that it was removed from the Southern Weekly website soon after publication. The reason is not particularly obvious, though there are a number of possibilities. Perhaps this rare look behind the scenes of one of China’s most secretive institutions was simply too daring. Perhaps the softer community-based approach of the Loving Heart Home is considered discordant with recent efforts to strike hard against Almighty God. Perhaps Cheng Dongxiao’s candid assessment of an inconsistent anti-cult system or the article’s description of what takes place in anti-cult “study sessions” was deemed unfit for public consumption.

Another possibility is that the article was pulled because there is, at present, insufficient consensus among the relevant authorities about the merits of Cheng’s approach to combatting organizations classified as cults. There may exist other competing community-corrections approaches or even more far-ranging proposals that would limit the state’s role in dealing with this issue altogether. Thanks to the story’s deletion, we are left to wonder not only where China’s anti-cult campaign might be headed but how much, if any, further sunlight will be allowed to shine on the issue.

In Conversion of “Cult Members,” “610” Goes from Secretive to Open

Southern Weekly, 25 September 2014

After five years, conversion work has begun to pay off at the Loving Heart Home, as attested by the award banners sent by many of the “cult members” who have graduated from its study classes. Photo credit: Liu Yanxun

Past: Preaching the law had little effect. When they left the study sessions, they hadn’t changed deep down and remained cult members.
Later: “Putting cult teachings in context and using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.” For example, finding weak points and flaws in specific cult scripture and using them as evidence. This collapses a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and achieves double the results with half the effort.
Present: Establish the Loving Heart Home and focus on the “reentry rate.” Implement “self-education and self-management.” It’s like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, and a parent treating a child.
Future: Conversion needs to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest, and the 610 offices need to gradually recede into the background.

It was raining with low hanging clouds in Nanjing on September 23, 2014. The radio said a typhoon was skirting the region.

Cheng Dongxiao sat in a government office building just a few kilometers from the Yangtze River, his face sunny and full of laughter. Average in height, he spoke rhythmically and rather quickly. Cheng is the director of the 610 Office in Nanjing’s Gulou District. To the outside world, this is an extremely mysterious unit, the full name of which is the Gulou District Office for Prevention and Handling of Cult Problems.

Cheng Dongxiao has been working to convert cult members for 15 years. Since 2009, he has been trying to find more effective conversion methods. The “Loving Heart Home,” which has been running for the past five years, is a product of that effort. “There are very few other countries in the world that have a huge, top-to-bottom anti-cult organizational system like we do,” he notes. “But the actual results from these years have demonstrated that severe anti-cult measures have not only failed to turn the problem around, they have actually made it even more serious.”

“The fight against cults is, in the end, only a contradiction among the people,” Cheng Dongxiao says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and ought to be carried out with great fanfare!”

“I’m Most Opposed to Coercive Methods”

Cheng Dongxiao looks back fondly to the past: “Chairman Mao’s ideology is our most outstanding, most valuable possession.” But after more than 30 years of reform and opening, the emphasis on economic development has led to a kind of ideological slackening, he says. This, he feels, is unfortunate.

“When I was first transferred here from the district’s bureau of industry, I didn’t understand at all,” he recalled. “Later, I slowly came to understand the difficult lives these people have experienced.” He said that even though some of them had enjoyed a good life materially, there was something lacking in their spiritual life. Perhaps they encountered some misery or sorrow in their lives and wanted to find a kind of spiritual support.

On June 10, 1999, China set up a hierarchical system of anti-cult prevention organizations, which became commonly known as “610” offices.

At that time, Nanjing was one of the areas hardest hit by the cult problem nationwide, and Gulou, Xiaguan, and Xuanwu districts were the areas of Nanjing most affected. There were large numbers of cult members living in these three districts, including many at high levels within cult organizations and many who created disturbances and spread rumors. The first cult organization to appear in Jiangsu originated in Xiaguan District. At that time, a total of eight cult members were coalesced around a university lecturer.

For the first two years, Cheng Dongxiao says, “all we did was [detain people], and the RTL camps and similar places were all full.”

Besides detention centers and RTL camps, another place for reforming cult members goes by the name of “study class.” With sessions in the spring and fall, each session of 10–20 people lasts for three months. Responsibility for attending to the students goes to government personnel, as well as laid-off workers who receive 100 yuan per day. Cheng says that before each class begins, “We advise these attendants to remain vigilant and take shifts irregularly.”

Cult members sent to study classes stay in standard rooms with a toilet, similar to those found in guesthouses. If a cult member becomes over-excited or unruly, the number of attendants will immediately be increased. “To date,” [notes Cheng Dongxiao,] “there have been no homicides, generally only self-harm.” So [they need attendants with them] “24 hours a day, eating with them, living with them, watching television with them.”

During the daytime, cult members attend classes in their rooms, with one or several instructors for each person. “To make a somewhat inapt comparison,” [Cheng Dongxiao says,] “it feels a bit like a graduate student meeting with his or her advisor.” Sometimes, they may go to a dedicated counseling room, with two instructors generally responsible for counseling as a team. These days, some locations also hold “lecture classes,” but only to deal with issues common to all cult members. Individual problems are harder to resolve, and “individual problems are more pronounced in cult members.”

Cheng Dongxiao admits that they had little success at first trying to preach law to the cult members. Many former cult members who already been converted told Southern Weekly that merely being locked up and preached to about the law had little effect on them. Li He recalls that she wasn’t the least bit afraid back then: “Group solidarity ran high among us inside the RTL camp. We sang songs and recited our scripture, the sound reverberating in waves so much that we really raised the roof.”

Generally, the study classes last three months, which can be adjusted according to each individual’s circumstances and consideration of whether they have fully converted and can successfully leave the study class. To date, there is in fact no clear set of quantitative indicators [used to make such determinations].

For many years, the experience has involved the “three statements and five documents.” The “three statements” refer to the “statement of guarantee, statement of repentance, and statement of severed ties.” The “five documents” require the individual to write clearly on these five subjects: “how I got involved in cult activities in the past,” “past and current views on cults,” “why cults are a danger to society,” “in what ways cults have endangered me,” and “how I have endangered society.”

Do some people fake it? It’s possible. One reason is “our instructors can’t actually teach.” Some cult members write their three statements and five documents, leave the study class, and go home. But they have not truly changed. They’re still cult members and still believe in those old cult ideas. Some even become more committed to the cult.

“What I’m most opposed to are coercive methods,” says Cheng Dongxiao.

Cheng picked up a stack of documents from the table, saying they were quantitative indicators proposed by a group of experts who had recently come up from Xiamen. He said they were currently working on a project to develop a comprehensive assessment form to measure cult-member conversion. The hope was that this would be more scientific and systematic than the artificial and subjective “three statements and five documents” and better at evaluating whether a cult member has truly transformed their thinking and beliefs.

“It’s Hard to Change Beliefs or Souls”

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues began looking for more effective methods in 2002, including “putting cult teachings in context” and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.”

“Besides the law, you also have to start from cult doctrines and scriptures,” [Cheng says]. The bookshelves in his office are completely filled with cult literature. “If I want to destroy the cults, I have to understand cult scripture and doctrine better than the cult members themselves, then compare it to orthodox Buddhism or scientific theories and look for weak points and flaws.”

“I’ve read these several dozen times,” Cheng says. “I’m constantly going back to check things. We can’t neglect any areas.”

When trying to undermine cult teachings, one ordinarily might seize upon some bad aspect of the cult leader. “On the surface, he’s telling you how to be a good person, but in fact he’s leading you toward a more self-centered, autocratic, and lawless realm in which you separate yourself from the government and society.” Then, you look for weak points in specific scriptural passages to back up your point. This is the way you collapse a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and get double the results with half of the effort.

But it’s hard to avoid unexpected situations, and Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues have their own methods for responding to such things. For example, one day when he is trying to break a cult member, he might forget a passage of scripture or get stumped. “I’ll just switch the subject to something else,” he said. “But I’ll remember to go back to that issue and immediately go look it up. You have to understand everything.”

“It’s hard to change people’s beliefs or their souls,” admits Cheng Dongxiao. “Closed classes are what we’ve found to work the best.” To this date, they’re still in use.

When they first started the study classes, many government officials looked down on cult members. But once they were sent to classes, these cult members would begin talking non-stop and even tried to “turn” some of the personnel assigned to them. Some of the cult members were intellectuals and could quote from the classics. “Occasionally, we couldn’t out-talk them,” Cheng laughs, “so they forced us to study.”

As for those cult scriptures and theoretical books, Cheng says: “Once you feel it’s necessary to read these things to do your work, reading them won’t be too much of a headache.” But some personnel found it very difficult. “Once I had a deputy who said he really couldn’t keep reading—every time he tried, he’d doze off,” [recalls Cheng]. “I told him he wasn’t suited for this kind of work and was better off working for the neighborhood committee. Soon afterwards, he was transferred there.”

“There’s not a lot of novelty in this kind of work,” says Cheng Dongxiao. “It’s not like you reporters, who get a new subject to work on every day. For us, it’s repetitive.”

“Consolidated Reentry, Coordinated Education”

The Loving Heart Home and the Care and Concern Association are both located in the same courtyard. There, 55 volunteers work hard together with Cheng Dongxiao to convert “cult members.” Photo credit: An Shu

Once they leave the study classes, many cult members have nothing to do. They’re basically all theists who see gods and ghosts behind everything. If they get sick or have some complications in their lives, they will turn again to the cult. “It’s easy to relapse,” admits Cheng. The relapse rate among cult members is quite high, basically the same as with drug addicts at 70 to 80 percent.

Some start reading books on Buddhism or Christianity. Sometimes they’ll get some of their former classmates to read along with them and discuss the books. But if they gather together for too long, outsiders will start to get nervous and report them. Then the neighborhood committee and police come to prevent them from meeting. This leads these former cult members to fall into a new trap of emptiness and depression.

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues thought there had to be a better way than simply dispersing them. As the saying goes, “Damming the flow is not as good as dredging a new channel.” So, they planned to find a place where they could let former cult members openly and freely gather to chat. In the end, that’s why they set up the “Loving Heart Home,” a place inseparable from Zhang Jing’s research project.

Zhang Jing was one of those “classic cases.” Zhang, 58, is a researcher in sociology at the local academy of social sciences. Around 2000, she lost herself in a cult. Like many other cult members, she went to Beijing to petition and was sent to RTL and study classes. Finally, under Cheng Dongxiao’s efforts to “undermine cult teachings with cult teachings,” she was successfully converted in 2002. After leaving the study class, she made cults the subject of her own research. In 2007, she received support from the Jiangsu 610 Office and the provincial academy of social science to work on a project titled “Present Situation and Countermeasures for Education and Conversion of Cult Members in Jiangsu.”

Using the methods of sociology, she launched a study of 13 counties and cities in the province, ultimately producing a 50,000-character report of statistics and analysis and identifying several issues. Zhang Jing told Southern Weekly how government officials at all levels use follow-up strategies in which three or four officials take responsibility for individuals who complete study classes and, during major holidays or sensitive periods, go to their homes to follow up or “check in.” These methods make people who have already been “converted” feel uncomfortable. Zhang Jing describes these tactics as “pressure follow-ups” and “charitable check-ins.”

Besides this, another clear problem is the way that units at all levels pay attention only to the “conversion rate” when it comes to cult members, “which is just like paying attention only to GDP figures in thinking about economic development.” This leads to false reporting and exaggeration of success. Zhang Jing suggests that instead of the “conversion rate,” we should be considering the “reentry rate” which would give a truer measure of effectiveness.

The “Loving Heart Home,” set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the “reentry rate.”

The Loving Heart Home is located in an abandoned school in Xiaguan District. Passing an alleyway piled high with discarded junk and stepping through a set of large metal double doors, you enter this spacious area, quiet and filled with tall, luxuriant parasol trees.

Cheng Dongxiao says, “We’re like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, a parent treating a child.”

“Enrich Their Minds So They Won’t Go Back to the Cult”

When the Loving Heart Home was first set up, Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues still had their doubts.

To that point, throughout the country the conversion of cult members had always taken place in closed classes, because the thinking was it was better to keep people separate rather than gather them together. But at the Loving Heart Home, they were actually all gathered together. At the time, some senior officials worried: “What if they repeatedly collude with each other and revolt en masse? What then?”

Cheng Dongxiao firmly insisted that this would not happen. His confidence came from the “troops under his control,” a group of 22 former cult members whom he had successfully converted.

“When I started running study classes and converting people in 2002,” [says Cheng,] “these people gradually joined me and started to help.” Back then, they were not called volunteers; instead, they were considered “model converts.”

“The idea was to have them use their own experiences to illustrate the law,” says Cheng. “You needed to treat them like friends. Most of them were older then me, so I addressed them as ‘Big Sister.’”

The Loving Heart Home practices “self-education and self-management.” Among the volunteers, a group of seven to nine forms an organization committee responsible for routine daily matters. “General matters are decided on their own, following discussion by the organization committee, while for important matters, they seek guidiance from the relevant government agencies.” Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, a certain number of volunteers remain on duty. Each year, there is a meeting of volunteers and every two to three years there is an election of a new organization committee and revision of the Loving Heart Home charter.

Li Zhonglan chairs the organization committee. Slightly plump, Li fell into a cult back in 1995 and once was a major figure in the local Nanjing cult organization who traveled widely “propagating the teachings.” When China outlawed the cult in 1999, she had a complete breakdown. Li Zhonglan told Southern Weekly that it was not until 2002, after study classes and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings,” that she was finally converted. “Now, at the Loving Heart Home, I can help others to clear up their confusion and help myself as well,” she said.

Besides the organization committee, ther are three others that Cheng Dongxiao has selected to be permanently stationed at the Loving Heart Home to serve as liaisons between the home and the 610 office. In Cheng Dongxiao’s words, they’re there to “pour some sand in the mix” [that is, to ensure a bit of variety –Trans.].

Qiao Zhanyu is one of those three. He came to the Loving Heart Home after retiring as principal and party-committee secretary at a middle school. He told Southern Weekly that, back when he was still a principal, there was an art teacher at his school who became mixed up with a cult. He decided to “take charge of his own children” and had teachers at the school rotate in shifts every day, two attendants per shift, to help the teacher convert. It was this experience that made Qiao the most successful candidate for this current work. But he says, “This is harder than managing a school, you know. You can’t rely on issuing compulsory orders or administrative sanctions. You have to put on a kind face and make people see the light through reasoning with them.” He says when he first arrived at the Loving Heart Home, the volunteers there considered him to be a government “mole” or “spy” and they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But after a while, “I treated people with sincerity and people began to respond to that. Now, they often don’t call me ‘Secretary Qiao,” but call me ‘Brother Qiao’ instead.”

Often, Loving Heart Home will show movies and programs on traditional culture. “We generally choose sentimental movies, like the Taiwanese movie My Beloved or Jane Eyre,” says Cheng Dongxiao with a laugh. “The cult took them away from ordinary human emotions, so we want to strengthen their sense of ethical sentiment and sympathy.”

Sometimes they invite experts on religon and Confucianism to give lectures. They also run a quarterly magazine called Spirit Station. Cheng says, “We want to enrich their minds so that they won’t return to the cult.”

“610 Office Needs to Gradually Recede into the Background”

All sorts of people become members of cults. There are former senior police officers, a head of a university organization department, civil servants from government departments, and others. At Loving Heart Home, people generally stay for around three months. Once they’re educated and stable, they don’t need to return. Of course, some of those former believers who have been stabilized apply to become volunteers and continue participating in activities at the home.

To date, the number of volunteers at the Loving Heart Home has grown from 22 to 55. Some of them are not former cult members but university students or concerned members of the public who have come purely to volunteer.

“Each year we recruit a little, but we don’t dare recruit too much,” says Cheng. “Those who want to be volunteers must be reliable.” Recently, their work has received recognition from senior levels of the national 610 office. At the recent Loving Heart Home fifth anniversary meeting, a central official came to attend. Some of the local officials in attendance were even moved to tears.

Volunteers don’t receive much remuneration, Cheng says. “Actually, no one is here for money. They’re here to educate and rescue people.”

“But the current situation remains as serious as ever,” says Cheng. “Besides Falun Gong, Almighty God has become a main force. It is based on Christian scriptures so those doing conversion work must study new material.” Currently, his colleagues and the volunteers need to read the Bible and Almighty God doctrine. “[As Sun Tzu said:] If you know yourself and your enemy, you can win the battle every time.”

When Cheng Dongxiao says “the current situation remains serious,” he also means “the state needs to standardize its anti-cult work. Currently, each locality has its own way of doing things and it’s all messed up.”

“For example personnel is complicated, in some places the 610 office operates independently, rather than as part of the local government like we do here,” [he explains]. “In some places, it falls under the politico-legal committee, in others it falls under the public security bureau, and in others still it falls under the domestic security protection unit.” Not long ago, the relevant state authorities gathered directors of local 610 offices for a conference. Cheng Dongxiao was one of them. He said very straightforwardly that China’s current anti-cult efforts need to be regulated through legislation that clarifies the screening criteria for cults and the responsibilities of the governing authorities. “For example,” he asks, “should the the National People’s Congress Standing Committee authorize the Ministry of Public Security to take responsibility?”

There’s also the problem of funding. “Our anti-cult work in Gulou District is part of the government budget,” he explains. “But many locations lack funding. How can they carry out cult conversion work?” Cheng said the problem is especially serious in northeast China. Once, at a meeting, he shared a room with a prefecture-level 610 Office director from somewhere in the northeast. As they chatted, that director began complaining about how he only had four people working for him in a city where there were more than 60,000 cult members. “In Nanjing,” Cheng notes for comparison “we only have just over 4,000 cult members in the entire city.”

“The bottom line is [that anti-cult work needs] to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest,” [says Cheng.] “As the government pays for more social services, the 610 Office needs to gradually recede into the background.”

(Li He, Zhang Jing, Li Zhonglan are all pseudonyms)