Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Ongoing Crackdown on Yi Guan Dao

Members of a Yi Guan Dao organization offer incense in an apartment believed to be in mainland China at an unknown date. Image credit: Jin De Fo Tang’s Facebook account

Yi Guan Dao (YGD) has not been rendered extinct in mainland China, despite a lack of recent reporting which has led some experts to express doubt on the sect’s persecution or even existence in the mainland (read “The Resurgence of Yi Guan Dao” for a detailed analysis). Combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and folklore, YGD has been banned for over seven decades. During the early years of repression beginning in 1950, scores of YGD members were tortured, imprisoned, and executed.

Dui Hua recently uncovered three court judgments online that corroborate its observation that YGD practitioners continue to be at risk of imprisonment. The sect continues to gain traction among the middle-aged rural population in Shantou, Guangdong, where prosecutors accuse YGD of conducting “reactionary” activities.

YGD's beliefs, with elements of feudalism, include apocalyptic teachings and salvationist doctrines that say that only converts will go to heaven. China’s pre-1997 Criminal Law classified YGD as a “reactionary secret society” or fandong huidaomen (反动会道门). The term is considered pejorative, denoting people or ideas that embrace views considered to be superstitious and outdated. However, the term has largely fallen into disuse after the amended Criminal Law, issued in 1997, removed “reactionary secret society” and replaced it with “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law (Article 300).”

Chenghai District

On May 30, 2018, the government of Chenghai District in Shantou, Guangdong, issued a public notice concerning the ban on YGD activities. Labelling it a “superstitious secret society,” the ban states that YGD carries out “infiltration and sabotage” in the name of “prostrating to Buddha” and “doing good deeds” when in fact they are “seriously and adversely affecting the socialist construction of spiritual civilization…and normal life of the people.”  

Seven months after the ban was made public, a group of seven YGD leaders in Chenghai District were given prison sentences of eight to 18 months for “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law” on December 20, 2018.

Table 1: 7 YGD leaders sentenced on December 20, 2018

Source: Chenghai District People's Court

Du Liqun (杜丽群), considered the principal offender in the case, had been secretly proselytizing across several villages in the district since learning the faith from two YGD masters from Taiwan in 1995. She founded several temples and provided worshippers with access to YGD books, videotapes, and CDs. Worship was held on every first and 15th day of the lunar calendar, coinciding with the lectures on YGD teachings. Worshippers learned about YGD standards of decency and morality in the lectures, but prosecutors alleged that the teachings “wantonly spread reactionary thought” and “fetter the freedom of thinking.”

The judgment cited a witness as saying that there were four to five hundred worshippers at one of the temples on one occasion. Most members joined YGD to pray for family safety. While some were drawn by YGD’s promotion of traditional Chinese values such as filial piety, they also believed that YGD represented good deeds and could bring good karma. Among the new converts were an unspecified number of minors. Du and other leaders were also accused of soliciting donations and membership fees from worshippers. 

The court found that the seven YGD leaders had inflicted great social harm for influencing a large number of members. However, the circumstances of the case were mitigated by their willingness to confess and recant their beliefs. All defendants in this case have completed their prison sentences at the time of writing.

Shantou Chaoyang District

While the 2018 ban appears to have ended YGD activities in Shantou, Dui Hua found two more “cult” cases in Shantou Chaoyang District involving YGD leaders. On November 27, 2019, another group of 15 defendants were sentenced for Article 300, with punishments ranging from suspended sentences to three years in prison. Lin Qinmao (林钦茂) is the only defendant who remains imprisoned. He is expected to complete his three-year prison sentence in 2022.

A case posted on Guangdong Anti-Cult Website stated that most of the defendants were either illiterate or did not receive education past the primary school level. In this case, 13 defendants were women.

Table 2: 15 YGD leaders sentenced on November 27, 2019

Source: Guangdong Anti-Cult Website

Another court judgment shows that YGD has made inroads with members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), despite party membership rules that applicants must be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” Convicted separately in May 2020, CCP member Li Hesheng (李和胜) received a prison sentence of eight months suspended for one year. Li recruited 70 members for his self-funded temple before being criminally detained in December 2019.

Li Hesheng and the 15 defendants belonged to the same jing de fo tang (进德佛堂), a branch of YGD, in Shantou Chaoyang District. The court found that they were subordinate to another YGD group in Hong Kong, where members of spiritual groups outlawed in China can still practice freely. Since 2009, the group had recruited over 200 members in Shantou Chaoyang District. Some of them travelled to Hong Kong to take part in worship. The Hong Kong-based YGD group is also found to have shipped promotional materials to the mainland.

YGD typically gathers financial support through the performance of “rituals of salvation of the ancestors.” Its activities are also sustained by donations from ordinary members. In the case of the 15 defendants, the court confiscated a total of RMB600,000. 

The prison sentences meted out to the YGD leaders are noticeably shorter than many adherents of Falun Gong and Almighty God who are also convicted of violating Article 300. Unofficial news sources reported that a leader of Almighty God in Xinjiang received a hefty sentence of 15 years in prison in July 2020. The difference in treatment likely reflects YGD’s status as a lesser political threat to the regime. While its popularity and influence have diminished considerably compared to its heyday prior to the Communist takeover in 1949, the activities YGD conducted in Shantou show that the sect has survived seven decades of state repression.

The cases discussed in this post do not only show continuity in YGD’s connections with Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also the official narrative and tactics used by authorities to suppress the sect. In addition to conducting localized activities in Guangdong, YGD is also known to be active in Fujian, where Taiwanese preachers and followers remain active. YGD members from Fujian have also made asylum claims in Canada and Australia since 2000, citing their fear of religious persecution in mainland China.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

China’s Popularity in US Sinks to Record Low

Reflecting a year of tense relations between the United States and China, China’s favorability rating among Americans as measured by the annual Gallup Poll has dropped to its lowest level in at least 40 years. The survey of 1,021 adults, carried out from February 3 to 28, 2021, found that 20 percent of American adults have a favorable view of China – down 13 points from the 2020 result – while 79 percent have an unfavorable view, an increase of 12 points over the 2020 result.

Clashes over how China has handled the coronavirus (polls show that large majorities of Americans fault China for how it handled the outbreak), human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, trade, China’s militarization of the South China Sea, and China’s threats to Taiwan have taken a toll.

Unfavorable views of China in the Gallup poll outweighed favorable views in every demographic – gender, race, education, political party, and ideology. Only two countries – Iran and North Korea – are less popular than China. Taiwan has a favorability to unfavorability ratio of 72:24.

The results will bolster those in Congress and the Biden administration who favor tough policies towards China, and they will make efforts to ease tension and find common ground more difficult. A Pew poll taken in early February found that 48 percent of Americans believe that limiting the power and influence of China should be the United States’ top foreign policy priority. The same poll found that a slim majority of Americans – 53 to 46 percent – have confidence that President Biden will deal effectively with China.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Dangerous Border Crossings: The Case of Cho Young-joo

South Korean missionary Cho Young-joo (in a blue striped polo shirt) led a mission trip in the summer of 2013 to provide education for children in Mongla, Myanmar. China accused Cho of organizing volunteers from China and South Korea to illegally cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Image credit: GoodNewsTV  

Cross-border evangelization involves unforeseeable risks. The risk is arguably grave in China, where foreign missionaries routinely face harassment and arbitrary detention. South Korean Christians and Chinese citizens of Korean descent (hereafter ethnic Koreans) are no strangers to arrests for assisting North Koreans who attempt the long journey to freedom and citizenship in the South.   

A judgment unearthed by Dui Hua revealed that Korean Christians in China en route to their overseas missions in Southeast Asia face similar risks. In May 2014, South Korean national Cho Young-joo (KR: 조영주; CH: 曹永周) was sentenced to seven years in prison for organizing illegal border crossings to Myanmar from Yunnan. 

While overland border crossings between Yunnan and Myanmar are only legally accessible to citizens from the two countries with valid exit permits, some areas are separated by rivers but crossable on foot in most other places. Informal Yunnan-Myanmar border crossings can be common, or were at the time of Cho’s conviction, in some areas. For this reason, the prosecution of some crossings and not others can be considered arbitrary or politically motivated applications of the law. 

The crime of organizing illegal border crossings, defined in Article 318 of the Criminal Law, has become the latest rallying point for critics of Beijing following the detention of twelve Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters who attempted to flee by boat to Taiwan in August 2020. On December 30, two of them received prison sentences of between two to three years in Yantian District, Shenzhen, for Article 318. The crime can lead to as many as seven years in prison and even longer if violence is involved.  

While some offenders feel compelled to flee lawsuits they believe to be politically motivated, Christians have fallen victim to the same crime for crossing the Chinese border to conduct charitable activities in another country. Cho led a group of Christians to provide education for impoverished children in Mongla, a Burmese city best known for casinos, prostitution, and markets for endangered wildlife with Chinese clientele.  

Good News Mission

Cho is from the South Korea-based Good News Mission (KR: 기쁜소식교회; CH: 好消息教会). The mission was founded by Ock Soo-park in 1976 and proclaims to have 170 churches in South Korea and 838 international churches. Due to doctrinal differences, mainstream South Korean Protestant denominations have called the mission “heretical.” The accusation stems from its allegedly objectionable conduct, such as deceptive recruiting and the exaltation of Ock

In China, there were few if any reports about its church members being subjected to coercive measures until Bitter Winter, an online magazine that focuses on religious liberty and human rights issues in China, reported a case of 26 people who were sentenced for “illegal business activity” in July 2020. They were accused of printing Good News Mission books. Among them, Xian Renguo (咸仁国), director of the Secretarial Department of the mission, received a prison sentence of 42 months in Jiangsu. 

There is evidence that the mission has gained some traction in China. Government gazettes have documented instances of “infiltration” from the Good News Mission in the northeast provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, where the majority of two million ethnic Koreans are concentrated. Liaoning was among the first provinces to have banned the church as early as  2005. Public security in Inner Mongolia, Hunan, Guizhou, and Shaanxi have also filed “special cases” (专案) to monitor the church. The most recent mention by the government found in the 2016 Changsha Yearbook  states that an unknown number of members were taken to “education classes” for illegally proselytizing there. Reporting by Bitter Winter also revealed that the mission established a secretarial department in Guangzhou in 2009. 

Three Border Crossings

Jingkang School is a government-funded school founded in 2011 in Mongla, a township in Shan State Special Administrative Region 4, Myanmar. In 2013, Cho led volunteers from China and South Korea to cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border to provide schooling and humanitarian aid. Image credit: Information Website of the No.4 Special Administrative Region of Eastern Shan Information Website  

Prior to detention, Cho administered a website to recruit volunteers to provide schooling for children in Mongla, the capital of Myanmar’s Shan State Special Administrative Region 4 bordering China’s Menghai County in Yunnan. Jointly initiated by Jingkang School (景康学校) in Mongla, the mission was joined by South Koreans and Chinese nationals, including members of ethnic minority groups such as ethnic Koreans, Manchu, and Jingpo (景颇族, a predominantly Christian ethnic group in Yunnan).

The Daluo Port is the official crossing that connects Mongla to Yunnan’s Menghai County. Image credit: Google Map and 

The Daluo Port is the only official crossing that connects Mongla to Yunnan’s Menghai County. As with many other overland border crossings between Yunnan and Myanmar, the port is accessible only to citizens from the two countries with valid exit permits. Exit permits are also obtainable by licensed tour operators catering to casino clientele. However, as noted above, the Yunnan-Myanmar border is considered porous and crossable on foot in many places. Locals are known to eschew the process of applying for a pass in favor of informal crossings utilizing accessible entry points. A 2014 New York Times article noted that few locals “bother applying for a pass and instead sneak through, via motorbike or by climbing through large holes conveniently located on the border fence.”  

Cho was accused of organizing three illegal border crossings from Yunnan to Mongla, all of which were made in July 2013. Of the three border crossings, Cho admitted to having a leading role in the first one where he was physically present:

  1. In the summer of 2013, Cho was assisted by local churches in China to arrange for five South Korean students to meet him in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital. From Kunming, they travelled to Jinghong, where they split into two groups. All but one student made their way to Mongla’s Jingkang School.

    Cho and his wife stayed with the one South Korean student who did not make it to Jingkang School. They were later alerted by Zhang Hongjun (张洪军), a Han missionary from Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province, to evade Chinese police before crossing a river to Mongla. The trio was intercepted by Yunnan police upon their return to Kunming on July 25, 2013.

  2. Prior to Cho’s detainment, Burmese police apprehended a total of 31 people on July 21. They were sent back to Yunnan on the same day. According to the Chinese prosecutors, Cho instructed Wang Yingjie (王应杰) and Yang Yuanyuan (杨园园) to arrange a coach for the volunteers after they had arrived in Kunming. Wang travelled with them to the border township of Menglong, from where they took minivans and crossed the border to Myanmar via a secret route. This group appeared to have taken a detour in a bid to join Cho in Mongla to avoid unwanted attention from border police.
  3. Yang was responsible for collecting transportation fees from the volunteers and did not cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Yang, however, was detained separately on August 9, 2013.

  4. The third border crossing involved seven volunteers, all of whom managed to reach Mongla. Four of them were detained in Menghai County on July 28 after they had finished volunteering and returned to Yunnan on the same day.

Map showing the route (green) from Kunming to Jinghong, from where Cho intended to travel to Mongla. Source: Gaode Map 

Convictions & Harsh Sentences

Ten other defendants were also tried alongside Cho. The Jinghong City People’s Court sentenced three for “organizing illegal border crossings;” four for “transporting others to illegally cross the border;” and another four for “illegal border crossing.” All but Cho were Chinese nationals. 

Cho’s wife and the five volunteers from South Korea were not prosecuted. They were deported after paying a fine for violating the Exit and Entry Administration Law.  

Table 1: Individuals convicted of crimes related to illegal border crossings.
Source: Jinghong City People’s Court

The sentence handed down to Cho can be considered severe, even more so than many profit-oriented smugglers convicted of the same crime for pouring an illegal flow of labor into or out of China.

According to the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 released by the Supreme People’s Court, 7,264 individuals were convicted of Article 318 in the 18 years beginning in 1998. Of them, one in every five defendants received prison sentences over five years. A larger portion, 37 percent, received prison sentences not exceeding three years. 

Considered a lenient punishment, suspended sentences are quite common in Article 318 cases. One in every four defendants received suspended sentences from 1998-2016. Cho was not given leniency even though none of the 11 defendants had an intent to profit. It would be hard to argue that Cho’s humanitarian work in Mongla has inflicted any social harms in China or Myanmar, an important factor to consider when a court determines sentencing. Cho’s defense lawyer also asked the court, albeit in vain, to consider the ties of friendship between China and South Korea. 

A cropped image of the 29-page court judgment detailing the specifics of the three illegal border crossings organized by Cho. Image credit: China Judgements Online 

The 29-page judgment did not explain why Cho deserved a seven-year prison sentence; it only focused on Cho’s role as the principal offender who “led, plotted, and organized” more than 40 people to illegally cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border thrice. The court also found that Cho had known that crossing the Yunnan-Myanmar border without proper documentation would be an unlawful act. However, he only expected that the crossings, if found, would constitute an administrative violation, rather than a criminal offense. He appeared to have acted on his belief that Chinese authorities would turn a blind eye to people illicitly slipping through the border, as they often do with locals who commute to towns on the other side of the border to see relatives or conduct trade as part of their daily lives.

Cho’s case was investigated by guobao, China’s secret police force in charge of handling political dissidents, religious groups, and “subversive” activities. The case fulfilled the criteria for being an “important case” (pinyin: zhongda anjian, 重大案件), as defined in the notice issued by the Ministry of Public Security in 2000 which stipulates that one of the following conditions is met:

  1. organizing 20-49 people to illegally cross the border at one time; 
  2. organizing others to cross the border three to four times; 
  3. causing serious injuries to one to two persons during the crossing; 
  4. depriving of or restricting personal freedom of others; 
  5. using violence or coercion to resist law enforcement; 
  6. illegally making a profit of RMB50,000-200,000; 
  7. and other “serious circumstances.” 

Points 1 and 2 are relevant to Cho, making his case almost certainly a zhongda anjian

Cho served his prison sentence in Qingdao, Shandong, in closer geographical proximity to South Korea than Yunnan. His first sentence reduction was granted three years into his prison sentence in December 2016; another reduction was granted in 2018. Good News Daily (Good News Mission’s news portal) reported his return to South Korea on January 23, 2019 upon completion of his prison sentence. Other than that, his case did not appear to have garnered substantial coverage in mainstream news media in South Korea. 

The Chinese government likely considers Cho a case of foreign infiltration, a term typically associated with religious activities conducted by foreign missionaries inside China. His case suggested that foreigners proselytizing outside of China face hefty prison sentences.

A Risky Venture

Cho’s imprisonment was by no means an isolated incident. In March 2018, Reverend John Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) was sentenced to seven years in prison for the same charge of organizing illegal border crossings. Cao conducted charitable work in Myanmar’s Wa Region, subsumed under the northern special region of Shan State near the Yunnan-Myanmar border. In addition to providing schooling, Cao also organized a charity clinic to reduce child and infant mortality rates, offered drug rehabilitation, and conducted onsite visits to Wa families to educate them about the harms of drug abuse. On March 5, 2017, Cao was taken into custody by Chinese police at the border upon his return to Menglian County, Yunnan, from Myanmar.

Despite being a Chinese national, Cao is perceived by the Chinese government to have close US connections. Cao is a US permanent resident with links to China’s house church movement. His trial was concluded at the onset of the fraying US-China ties caused by the trade war. The Department of State has expressed “deep concerns” and urged that Cao be released on humanitarian grounds. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for his release from wrongful imprisonment in October 2019. 

China has a track record of hostage diplomacy by holding foreign nationals as bargaining chips on dubious charges, as in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. However, political and economic problems between China and South Korea were irrelevant to Cho’s case. Cho was sentenced amid the warming ties between the two countries. Irritants did not occur until South Korea announced its approval of the US deployment of the THAAD missile system to counter the growing threats from North Korea. As China-South Korea relations turned sour in 2016, an increasing number of reports of missionaries being deported and visas refused have emerged.

There might be reasons not explicitly stated in the judgment that could explain Cho’s harsh prison sentence. In the early 2010s, official news media began reporting a surge of cross-border crimes in Southwest China. Of particular concern were cases of a political nature involving overseas religious forces complicit in organizing “Uyghurs splittists” to flee overseas through Yunnan and Guangxi. This led the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate to issue a joint response in 2012, in which they called on all cross-border crimes to be “handled in the strictest possible manner.” Public security was required to strengthen investigation and detection of cross-border crimes. Cho, a religious figure with close foreign connections, might just be an unfortunate victim as China began increasing scrutiny along the Yunnan-Myanmar border amid its campaign to ratchet up stability maintenance.

The case of Cho Young-joo is not well-documented in Chinese government sources beyond the 29-page court judgment published on China Judgements Online. We will likely be kept in the dark until more information about Cho’s case becomes publicly available. That said, it has become increasingly clear that cross-border evangelization is riskier than ever. In early 2020, China reportedly started erecting a 2000-kilometer reinforced fence along the Yunnan-Myanmar border. The move has been officially cast as an attempt to contain imported cases of COVID-19 from Myanmar

Some observers have alluded other motives to Beijing. The wall can be more than just a physical barrier; it has created new nodes of surveillance combined with the rollout of facial recognition technologies that can be used to monitor not only dissidents, but also ethnic minorities and missionaries, as well as to keep them from fleeing the country.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tablighi Jamaat and Hui Muslims


Footage posted in 2015 shows Chinese Muslims, who appear to be members of Tablighi Jamaat (in white robes)holding a prayer in a Chinese-style mosqueThe skullcapped worshippers to the right are believed to be Hui Muslims. Image credit: Umal Al-Dawa Youtube Account

Literally translated as “society for spreading faith,” Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) is a transnational movement closely tied to the Deobandi interpretation of the Sunni Islamic teachings. It is often seen as an ultraorthodox sect, and some media outlets have erroneously reported that TJ calls on Muslims to travel the world to convert non-believers. Founded in India in 1926, TJ encourages all members to form small groups to proselytize both in- and outside of mosques.  

TJ’s proselytizing method differs from the mainstream practice in that it is revivalist and insular. Rather than focus on non-Muslims, TJ adherents encourage other Muslims to adopt more orthodox lifestyles akin to those of Muhammad and the first Muslim adherents, and to focus proselytizing on current believers and Muslims of lapsed faith. Branding itself as a pietistic movement that eschews politics, TJ is active in over 150 countries, according to a study published in 2010 by Pew Research Center. TJ has an estimated 25 to 80 million participants around the globe, with the majority living in South Asia. 

Although TJ openly rejects violence as a means for evangelism, it is banned by Russia and a number of Middle East nations due to its suspected connections to militancy and terrorism. TJ, however, continues to operate legally in much of Europe. While a French intelligence official remarked that TJ provided “fertile ground for breeding terrorism,” other European anti-terrorism officials said there is insufficient proof to substantiate the claim. The United Kingdom has become a center of TJ activities with the arrival of South Asian immigrants since the 1960s. In the United States, officials have been unable to prove that TJ is a terrorist group although the then-assistant director of the FBI said in 2003 that “al-Qaida used them for recruiting.” Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has placed the 50,000 TJ participants in the country under close surveillance. 

The Chinese government sees TJ as a matter of serious concern and employs similar rhetoric to discredit the sect. That said, because of its diffuse nature and scarcity of public information, little is known about how TJ operates and the extent of its influence in China. Researching this subject is also difficult because varying transliterations are in use, including taibilike (台比力克), zhema’erti (哲麻尔体), zhemati (哲麻提), and chuzhemati (出哲麻提). In government sources, TJ is also called Da’wah Preaching Society (dawa xuanjiaotuan 达瓦宣教团). The name is occasionally shortened as Da’wah (达瓦), dawaer (达瓦尔), or dawa (达洼), all of which stem from an Arabic word used in the Quran to describe Allah’s call to proselytize. Some scholars have also said that in China and elsewhere, Da’wah refers to a range of educational and social welfare activities catering to Muslims in need.  

The participation of Hui Muslims in TJ has attracted some scholarly interest. Among the first English literature on this topic is “Hui Muslims: The Milieu of Radicalization and Extremism,” a chapter of Ethnic Identity and National Conflict in China, but it only mentions in passing that TJ increases the risk of radicalization among Hui. There are also a few Chinese-language studies about TJ, but none of them go beyond providing basic facts about its history, practices, and overseas activities.  

Alexander Stewart

Anthropology scholar Alexander Stewart conducted an in-depth study on this little-known subject. His 2018 article titled “Tabligh Jama’at in China: Sacred self, worldly nation, transnational imaginary” focuses on Hui participation in TJ in Xining, Qinghai. Stewart pointed out the sensitivity of the subject matter, citing anecdotal remarks from a graduate student who was told by mainland professors to avoid touching on it. Stewart indicated that many TJ participants in Xining “wear the loose, white, South Asian-style clothing common to the movement…” Unlike TJ participants outside of China, they do not gather in exclusively dedicated mosques or institutes. They have distinctive ritualized behaviour and proselytizing methods: they lead study sessions and travel occasionally in groups of four to ten people to preach all over China. “Instead of violently opposing the Han-dominated atheist state like some extremists among Uyghur splittists in Xinjiang,” TJ stresses the unity of all Muslims, transcending the many Islamic sectarian divides. Another reason why TJ appeals to Hui is because the sect provides an escape for those dissatisfied with state-appointed imams who prioritize patriotism over religious orthodoxy. 

Stewart noted that the legal status of TJ in China is ambiguous. In his article, Stewart cites one criminal case which strongly suggests that TJ participants are at risk of imprisonment in Xinjiang. The case was concluded in Gulja County in September 2013 and involved a Hui farmer sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” The charge stemmed from his participation in TJ and illegally proselytizing in Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai. In the judgment, the court designated Da’wah as an “overseas religious infiltration organization… unanimously boycotted by China’s traditional Islamic groups.” 

Dui Hua's Research

The Hui farmer case cited by Stewart was not an isolated instance. Politically driven accusations against TJ are dominant in official narratives. In 1999, Kashgar Yearbook recounted finding “reactionary propaganda” from hostile forces that included TJ. In that year, police broke up 11 secret TJ gatherings and confiscated about 2,000 copies of “reactionary” books, 80,000 copies of illegal religious publications, and thousands of reactionary and religious cassette tapes. Kashgar and other Xinjiang localities have also branded TJ as a source of “sabotage and infiltration” and religious extremism despite a lack of evidence to substantiate the claims. In Xinjiang, TJ is also categorized as one of the sanfei (三非, i.e. three illegal) cases, which include people who take part in illegal religious activities, produce illegal religious publications, and propagate illegal religion online. 

Government gazettes sometimes give piecemeal figures of police raids that hint at the extent of influence of TJ. In 2004, Kashgar police reportedly investigated 220 participants in the whole prefecture. In 2010, police outlawed five gatherings involving 76 people. The sources, however, did not state whether the TJ participants were Uyghurs, Hui, or members of other Muslim minorities. 

Dui Hua’s research into court judgments uncovered several criminal cases in connection to TJ, all of which involved Hui Muslims. None of them were accused of terrorism or convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Allegations against them all centered on “illegally proselyting” or “illegally teaching illegal Islamic classes.” For instance, Ma Decang (马德仓) was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on December 12, 2014, in Turpan City, for the same offense of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” because he was not authorized by the state to teach the Quran in mosques and his home. As a leader of a local TJ group, he received non-local TJ visitors in his home, where he held prayers and arranged proselytizing missions to Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Sichuan.  

Available sources also suggest that some TJ participants travelled abroad to preach. As recently as April 2020, news media reported that six Chinese nationals were among the 960 TJ members who were blacklisted and their tourist visas cancelled by India’s Union Home Ministry as the deepening coronavirus sparked border closures and strict lockdowns. 

In China, even making arrangements for TJ participants to travel overseas can be seen as a criminal act. On May 19, 2015, Jin Dehuai (金德怀) received an even lengthier seven years’ prison sentence in Xinjiang, again for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” The judgment stated that Jin arranged Bangladesh visas for other TJ participants. In 2013, Jin himself paid a 40-day visit to Bangladesh, where he met with other TJ participants from China. Additionally, Jin was accused of organizing multiple “jamaat’” gatherings and Islamic classes in his home in Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture.  

Another reason for the severity of Jin’s sentence is that he reoffended. In 2009, Jin was sentenced to one year and six months for the same offense as he was found guilty of teaching the Quran to over two dozen Hui and Uyghur children aged three to 16. The religious classes Jin provided were said to have inflicted harm on the children’s health because they were confined in several small apartments that “restricted their free movement,” according to the judgment. 

From “reactionary” to “infiltration, extremism and terrorism,” the different accusations put forward by the Chinese government against TJ appear to suggest that local officials in Xinjiang do not share the same understanding on how to pursue the sect. There were also cases where TJ participants were instead charged with Article 300 of the Criminal Law “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” The application of this offense is unusual because TJ is not an officially recognized cult organization such as Falun Gong or Almighty God.  

Riyad as-Salihin Hadiths, once available for sale in online bookstores, was said to be an illegal religious publication in the case of Ma Sheng in 2013. The image was originally from but is no longer on the site. 

In one case concluded in October 2010, the Gulja County People’s Court sentenced seven Hui TJ participants to three-four years’ imprisonment for “cult.” One of them is Ma Sheng (马胜), who was similarly accused of conducting illegal religious classes. Available sources stated that he taught several banned books, including Islamic Six Virtues and Riyad as-Salihin Hadiths. Publications of the same titles are downloadable free of charge from various online file sharing services.  

Beyond Xinjiang

The crackdown on Muslims that began with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has spread to other regions. Dui Hua has also found criminal cases involving TJ participants in other provinces. Ningxia, home to a large concentration of Hui Muslims, is another center of Hui TJ participants. In 2014, public security in Litong District launched a district-wide crackdown on “cults”, breaking up five different Da’Wah gatherings and “dismissing” 48 participants. In 2015, Ningxia raided 48 instances of “Da’wah Work” involving 355 individuals throughout the province. In 2016, in Tongxin County alone, also in Ningxia, authorities reportedly stopped 125 Da’Wah participants from “illegally proselytizing.” 

An online judgment unearthed by Dui Hua indicated that a local court in Ningxia found Ma Zongcheng (马宗成) guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt a public place and traffic order” for taking part in TJ activities from 2009-2018 and gathering TJ members in his home from other parts of Ningxia, Gansu, and Henan. Ma was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and was released on December 23, 2019. 

A document issued by the Hohhot Islamic Association in August 2019 asks all mosques to deny entry of Da’wah imams in order to comply with the state policy to Sinicize religion. Initially posted on QQ, a web portal developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, the image has been deleted. 

How TJ is officially designated in China remains ambiguous—does it really share a propensity towards extremism and terrorism, or is it another a peaceful group banned in China because of its effort to preach and conduct classes outside the state system? Instead of violent or other terrorism-related crimes, TJ members of Hui descent were mostly convicted of public order offenses, or sometimes “cult,” for illegally proselytizing or conducting Islamic classes.  

Media attention to Hui Muslims began relatively recently around 2018 when authorities across China started demolishing mosques perceived to be “un-Chinese,” shuttered Arabic language schools, and launched “anti-halal” crackdowns which affected tens of thousands of Hui entrepreneurs and restaurant owners. However, the cases demonstrated in this post show that a portion of Hui Muslims, particularly participants of TJ, faced repression even before Chinese president Xi Jinping announced his plan to Sinicize religion. First mentioned at the Central United Front Work Conference in May 2015, Sinicization brought about major bureaucratic restructuring that put state organs in charge of religious affairs directly under the CCP’s United Front Work Department, with the primary objective to safeguard CCP’s power. At a Central Religious Work Conference in April 2016, Xi directed his Sinicization remark in part at Hui Muslims for their troubling extension of “Islamization” of Chinese society

Today, the clampdown on Islam has become more widespread, and some Hui Muslims are known to have been swept into re-education camps alongside Uyghurs. More research is needed to evaluate how Sinicization has accelerated the clampdown on Hui participants of TJ, whose beliefs, practices, and overseas connections are at odds with increasingly xenophobic body politic under Xi. 

In addition to Uyghurs and Hui, the Sinicization of Islam has taken aim at additional minority groups. In September 2020, reports of a crackdown on the Utsul Muslims, a population of around 10,000 living in Hainan, emerged. New restrictions ban traditional Islamic dress, including the hijab and a traditional long skirt worn by female practitioners, from schools in Utsul neighborhoods. The ban is allegedly part of a wider prohibition against any traditional ethnic garments in schools, even though it only affects the Utsuls. In addition to the ban on traditional dress, other measures to be implemented include increased surveillance of residents in Muslim neighborhoods, restrictions on the sizes of mosques, and the removal of Arabic script and architectural features from mosques and other buildings.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Supreme People's Court Makes Two Announcements About Online Court Database


A screenshot of the China Judgements Online site’s announcement requiring users to register a mobile phone number. The announcement was put up on August 31, 2020, one day before the change took place. 

In September 2020, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) announced two developments concerning China Judgements Online, the country’s national public internet court case database. First, the Court announced that the database has grown to contain over 100 million judgements—a staggering figure. Second, since September 1, database users have been required to register using a mobile phone number in order to search the website—a chilling restriction. Do these two developments mean anything for the future of judicial transparency in China? On both counts, the answer is yes, but not for the obvious reasons. The growth of the database may be positive, but more cases do not necessarily signal more judicial openness; meanwhile, the registration requirement may be bad, but more access requirements don’t necessarily signal more legal repression.  

China’s Judicial Transparency Initiative and Case Databases 

The SPC launched China Judgements Online in 2013 as part of a commitment to increasing judicial transparency. The database is reportedly the largest of its kind in the world, and it continues to grow at a rapid pace. The database has been one of the most important court developments in China in half a century; it is a boon for lawyers and researchers, as well as ordinary citizens who want to know what the courts are doing.  

But despite the database’s promise, those who want to use it face two major roadblocks. The first impediment is about interface: the search functions on the website are not very good. Cases are often inaccurately tagged and do not always come up in searches, even when they are available on the website. The second impediment is about content: many cases are not available on the database. In principle, all court judgements are supposed to be posted online, but some categories of cases—notably those deemed state secrets and those that might endanger social stability—are excepted from this requirement. Unfortunately, courts are not transparent about which cases are not posted. The subversion trials of human rights lawyers such as  Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Li Heping (李和平), and Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) have garnered substantial media attention even within mainland China, but their judgments are not available on China Judgements Online

Worse still, cases sometimes are removed from China Judgements Online without notice, or cease to show up in searches, even when they are still available. This means that China Judgements Online queries alone are not a reliable way to identify published cases. Finally, the contents of cases are not always disclosed, making their inclusion on the site largely uninformative. This tends to be particularly true of cases of endangering state security involving ethnic minorities in restive regions. In one example, Dui Hua found that nine Tibetans had been sentenced for inciting splittism in Ganzi, Sichuan, but the site included no information beyond their names, the charges of conviction, and the dates of the judgement.  

Because of these shortcomings in the official China Judgements Online database, a brisk secondary market in online case databases has taken hold in China. Secondary databases include open access, such as Jufaanli, and paid databases such as LawXP and Legal Miner. Secondary databases exist in a legal grey zone. SPC guidelines prohibit duplication of the website, but the popularity of alternative databases has only grown in recent years, and the court has not seriously moved to eliminate them. That may be because the secondary databases are so useful. Not only do alternative databases offer better user interface and analytical tools, but they may also contain judgements that are not available on China Judgements Online, including cases that may have been taken down or cases from local courts that were not uploaded to the national database. For example, the case of Ismaili Rozi has never been posted on China Judgements Online but is available on an alternative site. Rozi is the first known case of educational placement, a measure imposed on prisoners who are considered “a danger to society” even after they have completed their sentences for terrorism or extremism offenses. 

While these secondary databases provide benefits over the official Court website, they also make the user problems with the official database worse. Many users—including researchers at Dui Hua—have noted that response times on China Judgements Online queries have slowed to a crawl in recent years. This is reportedly due in large part to the increased traffic from secondary databases, which use programs to search and scrape cases from the public portal. The use of bots to harvest case data helps explain why China Daily reports that China Judgements Online has had nearly 48 billion visits (it seems unlikely that these are human visits, as this would amount to the equivalent of dozens of site visits from every person on the planet).  

Registering for China Judgements Online 

This brings us to the announcement that as of September 1, 2020, users who wish to query the database must first register using a mobile phone number. The registration is apparently an effort to ensure that site users are humans, rather than web crawling bots that slow down database queries. If this is indeed the court’s rationale, this is a commendable attempt to improve the experience for individual database users. Even so, requiring registration to search public cases raises fears of surveillance and may deter citizens from using the database.  

There are many reasons people may be hesitant to register for the site. For some users, the registration requirement may raise worries that the SPC is tracking their individual case search histories. This could be a particular concern for people who search, for example, administrative lawsuits against local governments in order to bring a similar action themselves. Registration may also deter scholars who study sensitive types of cases such as political prosecutions, capital sentences, or cases from areas such as Xinjiang, Tibet, or other minority autonomous regions. These scholars may worry that if authorities track their searches, the judgements they find will be taken offline in response.  

Dui Hua regularly uses China Judgements Online for case research, and the foundation was able to successfully register after several attempts and gain access to the site after the new requirement went into effect. The change did seem to bring desired improvements for site stability and performance. However, a faster site alone will not reduce the draw of secondary case databases. Long-standing aforementioned issues still remain. Dui Hua regularly uncovers published cases posted on alternative databases that do not appear in queries on China Judgements Online. Until the SPC can guarantee that all public cases are accessible on its own website (and not removed without notice), people will still flock to alternative databases to seek information. However, to comply with China's internet use regulations, many alternative sites have already implemented user registration requiring a China mobile number or a WeChat account, which greatly impeded access from overseas. 

Along the same lines, the rapid growth of China Judgements Online is a laudable feat. The number of posted judgements, 100 million online, is incredible. But transparency is not just about volume, it is also about completeness. As Dui Hua indicated in its assessment to the United Nations in preparation for China’s 2018 Universal Periodic Review, the country’s record on this matter is mixed. The sensitive cases are always the minority, but in a rule of law system, a handful of cases could also be the ones that count most. The public needs some information about all cases, even the controversial ones. Where there are legitimate reasons for withholding the publication of a judgement, the existence of the case and the reason for the restriction should still be made public in every instance. Otherwise, although China Judgements Online may provide us with more and more cases, it will not tell us anything more about what we actually need to know. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

US Federal Government Embraces Capital Punishment Leading Up to UN Review

A cell on death row. Image credit: Innocence Project 

This summer the United States federal government aggressively resumed federal executions, ending an ad hoc federal moratorium that had been in place since 2003. So far this year, the federal government has executed seven people, and three more federal executions are currently scheduled for 2020. The execution of Lisa Montgomery, scheduled for December 8, will mark the first federal execution of a woman since 1953. The number of US federal executions this year already exceeds the total number of federal executions that took place in the rest of the last half century combined. Even as both individual US states and nations around the world are abandoning capital punishment, the US federal government is instead choosing to embrace it. As the United States prepares for a review of its human rights record at the UN in November, the future of the federal death penalty is on the agenda. 

Capital Punishment and the Universal Periodic Review

The resumption of federal executions comes as the United States is in the midst of its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a human rights process that every UN member state undergoes about every five years. The UPR is organized by the Human Rights Council. Although the United States withdrew from the Council in 2018, it still participates in the UPR as a UN member state.  

The UPR of the United States is formally a three-hour event at the UN in Geneva that is scheduled for November 9. But the November review is the culmination of a long process that began in 2019 when the Human Rights Council solicited input on the US record from stakeholders. As an NGO with UN Special Consultative Status, Dui Hua provided a stakeholder submission on the US human rights record last fall. The death penalty was a theme raised by many stakeholders, and Dui Hua’s submission (PDF) focused in particular on Attorney General William Barr’s stated intention to re-start federal capital punishment. Dui Hua highlighted ongoing concerns about the administration of the federal death penalty and urged the administration to maintain the moratorium and address these procedural concerns. Dui Hua also noted that the federal government had selected people with the most gruesome crimes for execution, rather than those who had been on death row the longest, raising worries that optics—rather than justice—shaped the terms of the resumption. 

Countries under review also prepare a national report in response to the stakeholder input. The US national report was due in February and finally released in September. While it does discuss capital punishment, it does not adequately address stakeholder concerns about the resumption of federal executions raised by Dui Hua. The report does not explain why the US attorney general directed the Bureau of Prisons to restart federal executions after more than 17 years without them. Nor does the report—which describes in detail the graphic crimes of the condemned—explain why the government is going forward with executions for these individuals, rather than others who had also exhausted appeals. Because these matters are entirely under the control of the same federal administration whose department of state prepares the national report, the report ought to address these issues. 

Capital Punishment in a Federal Review

The United States is a compound federal republic in which criminal justice authority is divided between state and national jurisdictions. As long as capital punishment is deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, state executions are a state matter outside the control of the federal government. The majority of US executions have always been carried out by the states—a point national government officials often make to international audiences. When the United States last underwent a UPR in 2015, the US report touted the fact that “the federal government has carried out no executions since our last UPR; in fact, it has not executed an inmate since 2003 and only three since 1963.” In some sense, the national government has been de facto abolitionist for over a decade. The resumption of federal executions ends this record. The federal government already accounts for half of all executions in the United States so far this year. If the federal government proceeds with the three executions it currently has scheduled, then federal executions will exceed state executions in 2020. It would be the first time in modern US history that this has occurred.  

The rise of federal executions comes as states are moving away from capital punishment. Since the last US UPR in 2015, capital punishment has been struck down by courts in two states (Delaware, 2016; Washington State, 2018), repealed by the legislature in two states (New Hampshire, 2019; Colorado, 2020) and subject to moratoriums in two states (Pennsylvania, 2015; California, 2019). The death penalty is now abolished or under moratorium in half of all states. State executions have also been declining for two decades. As leaders in Washington have become directly responsible for a significant share of US executions, international scrutiny of American capital punishment should also shift from the states to the federal government.  

Renewed Comparison to China

Dui Hua has long called for all countries that retain the death penalty to adhere to transparency and the rule of law in application of capital sanctions. The foundation puts a particular focus on China because of its secrecy and resistance to international laws and norms. China is a capital punishment outlier in the world today. 

Despite the overall transparency in US federal executions, the manner in which the condemned were selected remains unclear. Of the many individuals on federal death row who have exhausted their appeals, those who were given execution dates this year are not the people who have been there longest. It appears that these individuals may have been scheduled for execution first because their crimes were particularly shocking and unlikely to elicit public sympathy. The Justice Department’s announcement of the resumption of federal executions in 2019 placed particular emphasis on the fact that the individuals scheduled for execution had committed crimes against children and the elderly. The US UPR report similarly emphasizes the graphic nature of the crimes committed by those who were executed. An impartial justice system should avoid even the appearance of politicization in the death penalty process. As China faces accusations that American, Australian, Japanese, and Canadian citizens are facing capital sentences for political reasons, the US federal government must do more to indicate how it is selecting individuals for execution warrants.  

The current administration also appears to want to use the death penalty to mimic China in ways that may violate the US Constitution and international law. As Dui Hua makes clear in its US UPR stakeholder submission, President Trump has repeatedly called for the death penalty for drug dealers, an idea he claims he got from Xi Jinping. Following President Trump’s statements about capital punishment for drug offenders, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in drug cases where permitted by federal law, including non-homicide “drug kingpin” cases. While capital punishment for non-homicide drug kingpin crime is allowed under US federal statute, no defendant has ever been sentenced to death under the statute, so its legality is untested. Existing caselaw suggests that capital punishment for a non-homicide drug crime is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, and therefore constitutes “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as indicated under US reservations to the Covenant as well. In addition to capital punishment for non-homicide offenses, President Trump has also expressed support for the extra-judicial execution for drug offenses in the Philippines, a practice that is a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and US and international law. 

The UPR and the Election

Because the power to carry out federal executions lies with the US executive branch, the upcoming presidential election will likely shape the course of federal executions over the next few years. Criminal justice has been front-and-center in the presidential race, even though capital punishment has not been a major topic of debate. The issue got more attention during the primary race. At the time, Democratic nominee Joe Biden called for eliminating the federal death penalty. Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris also publicly opposes the death penalty. She declined to pursue the death penalty when prosecuting David Hill for murdering a police officer. Hill is now serving a sentence of life in prison without parole. Ultimately, the near future of the federal death penalty will be decided at the ballot box on November 3. Regardless of that outcome though, the United States should expect to receive comments from nations around the world at the UPR in Geneva on November 9.