Growth in the number of “endangering state security” (ESS) trials concluded in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) provides evidence of a widespread crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs. The number of trials for the category of crimes often used to suppress speech, association, and assembly increased 10.11 percent year-on-year in 2011, up from 376 trials in 2010, according to the annual work report of courts in the region. (Note: There is not a one-to-one ratio of trials to defendants. Court data from 1998 through 2003 show that, for ESS crimes, there was an average of more than three defendants per trial in Xinjiang.)
In 2009, ethnic riots in Urumqi—during which the Chinese government says 197 people were killed—coincided with a more than 60 percent jump in the number of ESS trials concluded in Xinjiang. In 2011, tensions between Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group, and Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, continued to precipitate smaller scale protests and culminated in a regional “Religious Strike Hard Campaign” beginning on November 20. The campaign will continue until February 22, 2012, and local authorities intend to recruit 8,000 police officers to join “the auxiliary police and militia” in, among other things, “cracking down on illegal religious activities.”
The increase in ESS trials in Xinjiang also suggests that nationwide figures grew during the period. In 2009 and 2010, the change in the number of ESS trials in Xinjiang was indicative of nationwide trends (see chart below) because so many ESS trials occur in the region. Official statistics show that more than half of ESS trials (of first instance) took place in Xinjiang from 1998 through 2003.
Court work reports come out during regional and provincial people’s congresses in January, but not all of them are made public. Those that are tend not to include ESS data but instead state generally that fighting ESS is a key aspect in achieving the goal of stability. Xinjiang and Sichuan were the only regions found to have stand-alone ESS data in their most recent reports. National figures for 2011 are expected to be reported to the National People’s Congress in March, including the number of indictments and arrests, and in China Law Yearbook in September, including the number of trials.
It bears repeating that Xinjiang has been known to account for over 50 percent of China’s ESS trials yet makes up less than 2 percent of China’s population. The obvious question is: Why? The answer, suggested by regional government policies and anecdotal evidence, is Uyghur activism in response to government restrictions on religious and cultural activities and state-sponsored inward migration of Han Chinese. While Han Chinese account for more than 91 percent of China’s population, Uyghurs make up about 40 percent of Xinjiang’s.
In 2010, RFA reported on five Uyghurs convicted of ESS in Xinjiang, with sentences ranging from three years’ to life imprisonment. All were Uyghurs involved in non-violent online activism or speaking to foreign media.
The Chinese government confirmed two of the cases. Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for “inciting splittism.” RFA reported that Niyaz was persecuted for giving interviews to the foreign media about the Urumqi riots. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Niyaz was still awaiting the verdict of his appeal 16 months after the announcement of his original sentence.
Dilshat Parhat was also convicted of inciting splittism. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. RFA reported that he maintained a Uyghur website and was detained on suspicion of online activism.
“Splittism” and “inciting splittism” are believed to account for many, if not most, of the ESS cases in Xinjiang. In 2011, Dui Hua uncovered no information on individuals confirmed to be convicted on ESS charges in the region. One possible individual, however, is 25-year-old Musa Muhamad, who according to an RFA report, was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment in a closed trial in October. The charges against him are unclear, but Muhamad is one of 20 Uyghur asylum-seekers who fled to Cambodia following the Urumqi riots in July 2009 and was deported back to China in December 2009 before a Cambodian visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. Although the circumstances of Muhamad’s case are unknown, if he was involved in the riots, even just by talking about them to the wrong people, he may well have faced charges of splittism.
Sichuan: Self-Immolation as Murder
Sichuan Province is home to two Tibetan autonomous prefectures, Aba (Ngaba) and Ganzi (Kardze), in which ethnic Tibetans account for about 55 and 78 percent of the populations, respectively. Tibetan areas of Sichuan have seen widespread unrest since August 2007, and government repression of ethnic Tibetans has heightened since the Lhasa riots left at least 19 people dead (according to a Chinese government tally) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March 2008. In 2011, ethnic unrest continued and 12 Tibetan self-immolations were reported, 11 of which occurred in Sichuan.
Unlike Xinjiang, however, ethnic unrest has not necessarily resulted in a high number of ESS trials in Sichuan. According to the annual work report of the Sichuan High People’s Court, there were 11 ESS trials concluded in the province in 2011. Moreover, cases relating to the immolations may not be among them. According to the report, three people detained in connection with the March 16 immolation of Phuntsog, a monk in his early 20s, were not charged with ESS, but with murder.
As is the case in Xinjiang, information on individual cases is limited. For 2011, the only two people known to be convicted of ESS in Sichuan are Han Chinese dissidents Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) and Chen Wei (陈卫). They were convicted of inciting subversion and are serving 10 and 9 year sentences, respectively, for writing articles critical of the Chinese government. Unofficial media reports have named a dozen Tibetans whose actions put them at risk of ESS conviction last year, but as indicated by the self-immolation cases mentioned above, they may not be included in ESS tallies and may instead face other criminal charges or administrative punishments like reeducation through labor. One of these question-mark cases is Jolep Dawa, a teacher and editor of a monthly Tibetan-language magazine reportedly sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for unknown charges.
The identities of the people convicted in the nine remaining cases of endangering state security in Sichuan and all 414 cases in Xinjiang, to most of us, remain a mystery. What is clear, however, is the need for greater transparency in the criminal justice system in general and trials that involve fundamental freedoms of speech, association, and assembly in particular.