China indicted more people for endangering state security (ESS) crimes in 2014 than in any year since China Law Yearbook began reporting the figure in 1999. The number of people indicted rose to 1,411, up 2 percent from 1,384 in 2013. These indictments spanned 663 cases, compared with 608 cases in the previous year.
With the uptick in indictments, the number of trials in the category that includes ESS jumped 20 percent. China Law Yearbook reports ESS trials in aggregate along with trials for dereliction of military duty and possibly other crimes. The number of trials in this category hit 1,074 in 2014, compared with 893 in 2013. Based on indictment statistics from previous years, Dui Hua has assumed that the number of trials attributed to dereliction of military duty and other crimes was negligible. Trial numbers are limited to trials of first instance that courts concluded during the year.
The ESS trial that received the most international attention in 2014 was that of Uyghur activist and scholar Ilham Tohti. He was convicted of splittism in September 2014 and sentenced to life in prison for operating a Uyghur news website. Including Ilham Tohti, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has information on 18 people tried for ESS in 2014, down from 32 in 2013 and 26 in 2012. Thus far in 2015, Dui Hua has information on nine people tried for endangering state security.
Chinese courts invariably convict and sentence those tried for ESS. Although acquittals are extremely rare, relatively light sentences are sometimes imposed. In 2014, at least three of those tried—Gu Yimin, Liang Haiyi, and Liu Benqi—were released by year end. All three were convicted of inciting subversion. Gu and Liu were tried for online posts that were critical of the Chinese government. Gu was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison and Liu to three years, but both were released due to time served in detention. Liang was likely tried for online posts and her involvement in public protests. Detained in 2011, Liang was released after a court sentenced her to a suspended sentence of two years.
ESS covers a range of political crimes including subversion, inciting subversion, splittism, inciting splittism, espionage, and state secrets violations. While it is considered the most serious category of political crimes—and is the only category that carries a mandatory supplemental sentence of deprivation of political rights—ESS crimes are not the only legal avenue used to punish activists. In recent years, authorities have also used “disturbing social order” crimes like “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and economic crimes like fraud and operating an illegal business to put away critics.
“The number of individuals indicted for ESS crimes reached an all time high in 2014, a striking and troubling development,” said Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm. “Given ongoing campaigns against protest and dissent, especially in the western region of Xinjiang, the number of ESS indictments and trials are unlikely to fall in 2015.”