Thursday, June 4, 2020

Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part II

In Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part I, Dui Hua explored the application of Article 300 over an 18-year period spanning 1998-2016, examining the types of cases prosecuted under Article 300 as well as the roles of women and ethnic minorities in organizations deemed to be cults. Part II analyzes trends in sentencing and discusses post-2016 developments concerning Article 300.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress extended the maximum penalty of Article 300 from 15 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment in the ninth amendment of the criminal law, which came into effect on November 1, 2015. Image credit: Liaoning Pindao

Since coming into force in 1997, Article 300 of the Criminal Law—“using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law”—has frequently been used to criminalize non-mainstream religious groups. Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 contains information on trials of Article 300 offenses, including statistical breakdowns of sentencing, gender, and defendants’ occupation. These statistics have revealed that over 23,000 cult cases were accepted and over 40,000 people were tried during an 18-year period beginning in 1998. 

Replacing the former crime of “organizing or using a sect or feudal superstition to carry out counterrevolution activities” in 1997, Article 300 began to be used extensively after the Chinese government designated Falun Gong as an “evil cult” in 1999. The court statistics do not fully reflect the extent of the cult crackdown because they omit a large but unknown number of people whose personal liberties were deprived without any legal procedure. Despite these limitations, the statistics offer a glimpse of how China invoked its criminal justice process to crack down on religion.

Punishment Trends

Acquittals are rare in China. In cult cases, only 69 men and women who stood trial from 1998-2016 were acquitted.

About 99.8 percent of cult trials ended with a conviction. Among them, 384, or 1.3 percent, were exempt from criminal punishment, and 219, or 0.8 percent, were sentenced to criminal detention or public surveillance.

Table 1. Sentencing breakdown of cult cases

Most cult defendants received imprisonment sentences. The court statistics broke down the sentencing information into four groups: a. below three years, b. three to five years, c. over five years to death penalty, and d. suspended sentences.

Article 300 is not a capital crime, but China’s propaganda often conflates cults with violent crimes such as murder to stigmatize certain religious groups even though violence is only rarely involved. In such cases, death sentences are possible. 

From 1997-2015, Article 300 as a standalone offense carried a maximum sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment. The ninth amendment to the Criminal Law in 2015 increased the maximum sentence to life imprisonment. It is unclear how many defendants convicted of Article 300 received life sentences because of how the sentencing information is categorized in the court records.

In the 18 years beginning in 1998, suspended sentences were not uncommon in cult cases, with 3,620 defendants, or 13 percent, receiving suspended sentences. Chart 1 shows an overall upward trend in the use of suspended sentences. In 2013, suspended sentences were meted out to one in every four defendants.

From 2002-2004, about 40 percent of all the cult defendants received the upper end of prison sentences exceeding five years, vis-à-vis 26 percent and 18 percent of those who received the medium and lower end of prison sentences, respectively. The severity of punishment highlighted the heightened repression of Falun Gong at the time.

The proportion of people who received prison sentences exceeding five years dropped to 12 percent from 28 percent from 2005-2013. In 2015, however, the number of people who received longer prison sentences surged to 1,218, making it the only year between 1998-2016 when the number exceeded 1,000. The severity of punishment, which cumulated in the 2015 amendment to the Criminal Law that turned Article 300 into a crime with the possibility of life in prison, was largely triggered by the heightened crackdown on Almighty God. China’s propaganda offensive against the quasi-Christian sect intensified following the killing of a woman in a McDonald’s restaurant allegedly committed by Almighty God members in May 2014. In this case, two members who committed the murder were sentenced to death in February 2015, and two others received life imprisonment. All of them were also convicted of violating Article 300.

This trend of severe punishment appears to have lasted only one year. In 2016, the number of cult defendants who received longer prison sentences dropped fourfold to 333. More than half of them were sentenced to imprisonment not longer than three years.

Going forward

Although the court records only provide criminal trial statistics up to 2016, other government sources seem to suggest that the trend towards greater leniency in cult cases continued afterwards. Effective since February 1, 2017, the judicial interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court in 2017 raises the threshold for evidence necessary to imprison cult prisoners for up to three to seven years. For instance, the quantity of print propaganda materials (such as leaflets, banners, or newspapers) produced or disseminated for cult purposes that constitute a normal offense has now been raised to 1,000, a significant leap from 300, as stated in the 2001 interpretation. Today, more cult cases are likely to be deemed “relatively minor” because the interpretation has expanded the scope of activities that fall under such a category.

Dui Hua previously reported that it is not uncommon for cult prisoners to receive clemency after expressing remorse for their behaviour. This trend remains unchanged. Since January 1, 2017, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has documented over 1,200 instances of sentence reductions, parole, and medical parole granted to “cult” prisoners. All these acts of clemency were confirmed by official sources, including court judgments and responses provided by government interlocutors to Dui Hua.

However, Dui Hua continues to find a large number of cult cases from government sources after 2016. From 2017-2019, over 6,000 cult judgments have been posted online. Most of them involve Falun Gong, followed by Almighty God.

These judgments also revealed a troubling aspect of judicial transparency in cult cases involving ethnic minorities. Dui Hua uncovered about three dozen cases which appear to involve Uyghurs or Kazakhs; the judgments were all handed down in Aksu Prefecture in June 2019. This finding suggests that China’s crackdown on cult organizations has extended to Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, but details remain unknown because judges exercised their power to conceal content that they believe might endanger social stability. These judgments only revealed information about defendants’ names, crimes, and the courts which handled the cases. All other information, including how long they were sentenced and where they are incarcerated, has been obscured.

Since 2019, state news media has reported a large number of cult cases in Shandong and Qinghai. In each instance, dozens to over 600 people were admonished, administratively detained, or criminally detained. A portion of these “cult” members are believed to have been indicted or brought to trial.

Anti-cult propaganda continues unabated even amid the COVID-19 outbreaks across China. Authorities in Henan combine COVID-19 prevention measures with an anti-cult message, saying, “Pandemic prevention requires cult prevention.” Image credit:

China continued to deploy considerable manpower to suppress cult organizations even amid the COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. From January to early May 2020, the China Anti-Cult Association reported 25 cult cases across different provinces. About half of these cases were related to the pandemic. Among them, 15 Falun Gong practitioners were detained for disseminating anti-government materials. They were also accused of “concocting and spreading superstitious fallacies” about their supernatural power to cure COVID-19 when the outbreaks were at their peak in February.

Society of Disciples, also known as Mentu Hui, has been much less visible in China, but this Christian sect was involved in one of the reported coronavirus-related cult cases. The group allegedly claimed that conversion could help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In this case, a woman surnamed Wu in Gong County, Sichuan, received administrative detention for 15 days.

Despite signs of greater leniency towards cult offenders, there are sufficient grounds to believe that the number of cases, as well as the number of individuals, especially women, brought to trial for Article 300 has remained in the thousands over the past few years. Dui Hua will continue to monitor the application of this crime, which has been used by the Chinese government to jail tens of thousands of religious dissenters since 1997.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part I

China’s anti-cult propaganda likens Falun Gong and Almighty God to drugs, superstition, and pseudoscience. Image credit: The Paper

A cult is a social group characterized by its unconventional, sometimes controversial religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. In the United States, mainstream culture and religious leaders consider violent acts such as murder, suicide, and bodily harm as important factors when designating a social group as a cult. Most liberal democracies do not have legislation against cults because any attempt to do so is believed to run counter to freedom of religion enshrined in their constitutions. In China, however, a group can be designated as a cult because its politics and potential to mobilize people are considered threats to Communist Party rule. 

Since coming into force in 1997, Article 300 of the Criminal Law—“using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law”—has frequently been used to criminalize non-mainstream religious groups. Observers have long viewed religious persecution as being widespread in China, but they have been unable to quantify the precise extent of the crackdown because reliable figures are not available. 

Published by China’s Supreme People’s Court at the end of 2018, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 contains extensive information on trials of Article 300 offenses, including statistical breakdowns of sentencing, gender, and defendants’ occupation. These statistics have revealed that over 23,000 cult cases were accepted and over 40,000 people were tried during an 18-year period beginning in 1998. 

This is the latest article in a series based on Dui Hua’s research into Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016. Previous posts have explored the decline in juvenile convictions, Hong Kong-related cases, and Taiwan-related cases.

What were the cult cases?

The Criminal Law does not provide an explicit and detailed definition of cult organizations. Back in 1995, the Central Committee, State Council, and Ministry of Public Security identified 14 religious groups (12 Christian and two seemingly Buddhist) as cult organizations. In 2014, the China Anti-Cult Association compiled another list of 20 cult organizations (16 Christian, three quasi-Buddhist, and one qigong). These lists are not exhaustive because local authorities across China have exercised broad discretion to designate numerous religious groups as “cults” even though they have not been named on the aforementioned cult lists.

Replacing the former religious crime of “organizing or using a sect or feudal superstition to carry out counterrevolution activities” in 1997, Article 300 began to be used extensively after the Chinese government designated Falun Gong as an “evil cult” in 1999. Before the nationwide repression began, tens of thousands of practitioners could be seen meditating in parks and public squares all over China. Chinese courts began filing the bulk of cult cases a year after Falun Gong was outlawed. The number of people brought to trial skyrocketed from 864 in 2000 to almost 3,000 in 2001. The country recorded its first peak of cult cases in 2002; 3,315 people were brought to first-instance trials. 

The second peak took place in 2008; the reasons are not entirely clear. It could be that China ratcheted up stability maintenance in the run up to the Olympics in Beijing. Falun Gong practitioners joined forces with international activists to boycott the Olympic torch relay over China’s extensive human rights violations. Chinese state media called Falun Gong one of the three forces seeking to sabotage the Olympics alongside the East Turkestan and Tibetan independence movements. 

The court statistics do not fully reflect the extent of the cult crackdown because they omit a large but unknown number of people whose personal liberties were deprived without any legal procedure. Among these measures are people who are placed in “legal education classes,” which have been used in China for two decades. This measure provides local authorities with a highly flexible means of dealing with individuals who engage in behavior that is viewed as socially disruptive but does not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution or public-order punishment.

The court statistics also exclude tens of thousands of cult offenders who were sent to re-education through labor (RTL) campsUnder RTL, individuals could be detained and subjected to forced labor for up to three years, extendable for another year, for the vaguely defined conduct of “disrupting social order” on the decision of the public security organs alone. During the 2009 China session of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, the Chinese government confirmed the existence of 320 RTL facilities with approximately 190,000 inmates, down from 500,000 inmates in 310 RTL facilities in 2005. At the end of 2012, the Ministry of Justice claimed that the number of RTL inmates further decreased to 50,000 from across 351 RTL facilities nationwide. 

Despite these limitations, the statistics offer a glimpse of how China invoked its criminal justice process to crack down on religion. The surge of cult cases in 2013 warranted particular attention. Compared to 2012, the number of people who stood trial in 2013 doubled to 2,942. There were two main reasons:
  1. RTL was abolished in 2013. Cult offenders who were previously sent to RTL are now more likely to face imprisonment sentences.

    People in Gansu Province on December 11, 2012 carry a banner warning that Almighty God is coming to save believers and destroy the people and nations that resist. Image credit: Global Times

  2. China’s sweeping clampdown on Almighty God began in late December 2012. Identified by the Chinese government as a cult organization in 1995, the quasi-Christian group claims that Jesus was reincarnated as a Chinese woman and calls on members to slay the Chinese Communist Party, which they call the “great red dragon.” It joined the chorus of voices spreading rumors of an impending apocalypse, which predicted that the sun would cease to shine and electricity would stop working for three days beginning on December 21, 2012. Prior to the “doomsday,” group members spread the rumors at public venues and by going door-to-door, and they held demonstrations across China which were put down with force.  

    The Chinese press had published very little about Almighty God before 2012, but the demonstrations in that year became the catalyst for China’s propaganda offensive against the sect. Just ahead of the “doomsday,” public security detained 1,300 Almighty God members across 16 provinces, with the majority of them in Qinghai and Guizhou. In 2014, China Daily reported the arrests of another batch of 800 Almighty God members in Ningxia over the previous two years. 
The highest peak of cult cases occurred in 2015: 2,764 cases and 4,582 defendants. This peak coincided with the amendment to the Criminal Law which turned Article 300 into a crime with the possibility of life in prison (up from a fixed-term imprisonment sentence of 15 years). In that year, China intensified its propaganda offensive against Almighty God and sentenced two members who allegedly killed a woman in a McDonald’s restaurant to death.

It is worth noting that the surge of cult cases in 2015 was attributed largely to ethnic minorities. Except for 2015, ethnic minorities typically accounted for a few dozen to over a hundred defendants each year from 2000-2016. Evidence suggests that Falun Gong, Almighty God, and other unconventional Christian sects have made inroads with a small number of Hui, who are traditionally Muslims. With a strong base in northeast China, Falun Gong is also known to have converted a number of Manchus, ethnic Koreans, and Mongols. More research is needed to examine why the number of ethnic minorities surged to 1,082 in 2015. It remains unclear who these ethnic groups were and what happened to them in that year. 

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments also uncovered cult cases concerning lesser-known unconventional religious groups, including the Three Grades of Servants (三班仆人), Society of Disciples (门徒会), Spirit Sect (灵灵教), Blood of the Holy Spirit (血水圣灵), Lord God Sect (主神教), Full Scope Church (全范围教会), Shouters (呼喊派), and the quasi-Buddhist group Guanyin Famen (观音法门). However, Falun Gong and Almighty God continue to account for the majority of cult cases. Violence is rarely involved in cases involving these organizations.

Over one-third were women
From 2010-2016, women accounted for five to seven percent of defendants in all criminal cases. However, they are disproportionately represented in cult cases tried. The court records indicated that women made up 41 percent of all the 28,497 cult defendants during the 18-year period. In the 2000s, the number of female defendants ranged from 400 to 800 each year, but it doubled in just one year after the state crackdown on Almighty God commenced in December 2012. About 2,600 women stood trial within two years since 2015.

China’s anti-cult propaganda says that women in cult cases are typically middle aged and “left-behind” by husbands (留守妇女) who migrated from rural regions to cities for employment or to conduct business for an extended period. It often makes sexist claims that women are “weak-willed and psychologically vulnerable, with a propensity to succumb to coercion or monetary enticements from cult organizations” because many of them have a low level of education. 

Statistics are given about the defendants’ occupational background, but it is unclear how many workers, farmers, and other occupations were women. The statistics indicated that 35 percent of all cult defendants were farmers or migrant workers, and slightly less than one-third were unemployed. Only 7.5 percent of all the defendants were classified as employed or laid-off workers, and another 7.5 percent were retired. 

Although China’s anti-cult propaganda tends to describe women as passive victims in cult cases, they are known to have taken a leading role in several religious groups outlawed by the Chinese government. For instance, Guanyin Famen (观音法门) was founded by Vietnam-born Chinese Shi Qinghai in 1988 and introduced to China around 1992. It appears to be the largest of the three Buddhist-sounding groups banned by China (read The “Cult of Buddha” for a more in-depth discussion). Shi, who is residing overseas, continues to attract members in China despite the state ban that has been in place for almost three decades. 

Many China-based Guanyin Famen leaders are women. Although the number of publicized cases has decreased sharply in recent years, Dui Hua continues to uncover new cases related to this sect. In September 2019, a local court in Shaanxi sentenced Guo Huiling (郭会玲) to 18 months’ imprisonment. Guo, a leading member in charge of recruiting members in Baoji, was apprehended by public security while distributing Guanyin Famen pamphlet cards in March 2019. The “cult” books, posters, cassette tapes, and CD-ROMs found by public security in her home became the evidence for conviction. 

Women have likewise played a leading role in several other homegrown religious groups which emerged relatively recently in the 2010s. Combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, Chinese folklore, and superstitious practices, these groups have never been mentioned on the different lists of cults compiled by the Chinese government. Their leaders also received lengthy sentences for Article 300.
Zheng Hui, founder of the Milky Way Federation, promoted the use of alien energy to become Buddha. Image credit: Sohu

Among these groups are the Milky Way Federation (银河联邦), which was established in 2012 by Zheng Hui (郑辉). Zheng resigned from her job and created a website dedicated to promoting a belief she learned from a group in Germany, which China views as an apocalyptic religious cult. Zheng combined concepts of Buddhism with her belief that extra-terrestrial beings exist. Proclaiming herself to be the female Gautama Buddha, Zheng intended to awaken humankind in her envisioned “Buddha kingdom.” Her group allegedly had over 4,000 members from across China. In July 2015, Zheng was sentenced to eight years in prison under Article 300 in Nanning, Guangxi.
Zhongtian Zhengfa is a Buddhist-sounding religious group co-founded by self-proclaimed reincarnated mother Buddha Chen Yunxiu. Despite propaganda presenting women as passive victims in cult cases, Chen has played a leading role in an organization designated as a cult. Image credit: Sina Blog

Bizarre as it may sound, syncretic religious groups similar to the Milky Way Federation appear to have gained popularity in other provinces. Alongside her husband, Chen Yunxiu (陈云秀) founded Zhongtian Zhengfa (中天正法) in 2010 and called herself the reincarnated mother Buddha, Nüwa (the mother goddess in Chinese mythology), and Saint Mary. Zhang said that conversion to her sect would be the only way to obtain salvation. Zheng was sentenced in Shandong to seven years’ imprisonment for Article 300 in 2018. The court judgment indicated that her group had over 900 members from different provinces.

In Part II, Dui Hua examines the different forms of punishment meted out to those convicted under Article 300, analyzes trends in sentencing, and explores post-2016 developments concerning cult cases. Read it here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Observations in Death Penalty Cases in China

Du Shaoping in court. Image Credit: Haibao News

As the world’s leading executioner, China’s death penalty law has long been scrutinized by scholars, policy makers, and human rights groups. The subject matter garners an outsized level of international attention when the cases involve foreigners. Robert Schellenberg’s case serves as a recent, highly visible example: Schellenberg is a Canadian sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and his case has seemingly been thrust into the tit-for-tat of international politics. Ironically, this increased attention comes amid a decades-long decline in the overall use of the death penalty in China

It has been over a year since Schellenberg appealed his death sentence to the Liaoning High People’s Court in January 2019. The court appears to be delaying the judgment in order to seek leverage over the case of Meng Wanzhou. International politics are clearly at play in Schellenberg’s case, but it must be noted that delayed judgments are not uncommon in capital cases involving Chinese citizens. In some cases, defendants have waited as long as 600 days between first and second instance trials; in a rare case, 900 days elapsed before the final review by the Supreme People's Court (SPC).

The length of time between trials, SPC reviews, and execution varies case by case. It is also possible for the SPC to expeditiously approve death sentences within a month after the sentences were handed down at first-instance trials. The cases below display some disparities in this application:

  • The Beijing High People’s Court upheld the death sentence of Sun Wenbin 29 days after the Beijing No.3 Intermediate People’s Court handed down the judgment on January 16, 2020. Sun was found guilty of intentional homicide for stabbing a doctor at a Beijing hospital in December 2019. The SPC approved the death sentence on March 17, 2020, slightly over a month after the appellate ruling was made. The period from Sun’s criminal detention to his execution on April 3, 2020 lasted 101 days. 
  • In another case, Du Shaoping was found guilty of intentional homicide and other crimes by a court in Huaihua, Hunan, sentenced to death, and executed in January 2020. The alleged crime of him killing and burying a teacher in a school yard, which took place in 2003, was said to be instigated by disputes over a schoolyard construction project. While 16 years passed between the crime and Du’s trial hearing on December 17, 2019, judicial proceedings were more expeditious. Du was executed on January 20, 2020, meaning that the period from his first trial to the SPC approval of his conviction and sentencing lasted 30 days. Four days elapsed between the SPC’s approval and his execution. 

Understanding of how China applies the death penalty is largely lacking. To better understand these conflicting trends, Dui Hua has conducted an updated analysis of trends in the length of time between trial and execution in China’s death penalty cases. Longer times between sentence and execution could indicate a more deliberate judicial approach that allows for meaningful review of the evidence supporting a conviction and death sentence, and it also provides a window for intervention from higher courts and others to stop executions and correct wrongly decided cases.

This article examines possible trends in sentencing and execution in order to discern attitudes and practices towards the application of the death penalty. First, this article presents new statistical data on the length of time between sentence and execution using Dui Hua’s Death Penalty Log. It then provides a paired comparison of a very quick (less than 60 days) and a very deliberate (more than 2 years) death penalty appellate review, which can assist in developing an understanding of the factors that tend to be associated with a longer judicial deliberation between trial and execution.

A Look at the Numbers: Time from Trial to Final SPC Approval of Execution

In the United States, the term “death row” is part of the common lexicon, perhaps owing to the extended delay between the investigation, trial, appeal, and execution of condemned prisoners. By contrast, there has been little need for a term like “death row” in China because there has not historically been an extended period between trial and execution, and capital offenders are rarely sent to prison before execution. In China, capital offenders stay in detention centers after they are sentenced, or when appeals to a higher-level court or approvals from Supreme People’s Court are pending.

However, as the SPC has reclaimed its authority over the review and final approval of death sentences, times between trial and sentencing have begun to lengthen and vary. Although the complete abolition of the death penalty should be the ultimate goal from a human rights perspective, understanding how and why delays of execution occur is nonetheless an important element of understanding whether China engages in the deliberation necessary to limit injustice in death penalty cases.

Dui Hua has recently compiled the following information regarding the time between trial and execution in death penalty cases in China: from 2015 to 2019, Dui Hua recorded 1,247 first-instance trials involving the death penalty; of those, there were 460 known second instance trials, and 261 known SPC reviews of those trials. Table 1 below provides a summary of average lengths of time between adjudication and final SPC death penalty review.1

Table 1. Length of Time in Days Between Adjudication and Final SPC Judgment in Death Penalty Cases
Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation
Of the 261 SPC reviews, 239 death sentences were approved (91.6 percent), and 24 were not approved (9.2 percent). While these data provide a sense of the average delays between death penalty trial and execution, Figure 1 provides a more detailed understanding of how many cases involve significant appellate deliberation. 

Figure 1. Number of Death Penalty Cases, Sorted by Days Between First Instance Trial to Final SPC Decision
Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation
In approximately half of the cases, the time between first instance death penalty trial and SPC review is between six months to a year. On the other hand, in more than half of cases, the period from trial to SPC review took longer than a year; of those, nearly 33 percent took longer than one and a half years. Interestingly, a very small number of cases landed on opposite ends of the spectrum – only three cases took less than 182 days to review, and only 10 took longer than 730 days. 

To better understand what factors lead to longer time windows between trial and execution, the next part provides a more in depth look at two cases, one from each end of the spectrum. While these two cases are outliers – one was particularly quick while the other was noticeably drawn out – they provide insight into factors affecting the duration of judicial proceedings in death penalty cases.

Yang Zanyun and the “9-12” Attack
A photograph of Yang Zanyun from a court proceeding related to his mass killing case. Image Credit: Hunan People's Court
On one end of the spectrum is a high-profile mass killing that featured a highly expeditious SPC review in which the period from initial trial to execution lasted only 48 days (December 12, 2018-January 29, 2019). This case involved an attack carried out in Hunan province by Yang Zanyun (阳赞云), who drove a car into a crowd in September 12, 2018, killing 15 people.

Yang was convicted of the crime of “endangering public safety using dangerous methods”; however, a more accurate contemporary translation of the crime would probably be “mass killing” or even terrorism (media articles branded the case the “9-12” attack). According to Xinhua, Yang drove a Land Rover into a crowd of people at Mijiang Square in Hunan before exiting his vehicle and attacking more people with a knife and a shovel. In addition to those killed, Yang also injured 43 others. Unsurprisingly, as one of the most heinous mass killings in China’s history, the case drew strong public response, with more than 300 people attending the proceedings held at the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court in December 2018.

A little over one month later, the Hunan High People’s Court announced on its WeChat account that the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court carried out Yang’s execution on January 29, 2019, in accordance with a final SPC death penalty order.

Another negative factor that likely contributed to Yang’s execution was his long criminal history. According to Reuters, Yang had previous convictions for “selling drugs, theft and attacking people, which caused him to harbor a desire for ‘revenge on society.’”

Ma Gongxian and the Land Dispute Homicide

By contrast, a recent homicide case has led to a much longer judicial review process. The defendant in this case, Ma Gongxian (马攻先), was convicted of intentional homicide for stabbing a family member to death as part of a dispute over land rights in Qingdao, Shandong province. 

The case arose out of long simmering tensions between Ma Gongxian and his younger brother, Ma Huixian, with respect to a 16-mu (approximately two-and-a-half-acre) piece of real estate. In October 2015, tensions boiled over when Ma Gongxian confronted Ma Huixian regarding a building that Ma Huixian was constructing on the disputed land. While the exact details remain somewhat unclear, at some point Ma Gongxian wielded a large knife and stabbed and killed Zhao Jufang, Ma Huixian’s wife. Ma Gongxian was then attacked with rocks by others at the scene and taken to the hospital.

According to the report, Ma Gongxian was arrested in the hospital, and the Qingdao Procuratorate charged him with intentional homicide. The Qingdao Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to death with immediate execution in October 2016, but despite the judgment calling for the immediate implementation of the death penalty verdict, Ma was allowed to appeal the sentence. The Shandong High Court heard the case on June 8, 2017, and Ma Gongxian presented a complex court defense in which he admitted to killing the victim but claimed that his actions amounted to negligent, rather than intentional, homicide. The defendant was 69 years old at the time of the crime. As of November 2019, the Shandong High Court reportedly upheld the judgement, and the SPC approved the death sentence, meaning that the execution likely took place soon after the final SPC approval. 

In the small village in Shandong where the crime took place, however, the execution sentence was met with opposition. During Ma Gongxian’s appellate hearing, nearly a hundred villagers from Ma Gongxian’s village went to the Shandong High Court, expressing opposition to Ma Gongxian’s death sentence and saying that “the crime should not lead to death” (罪不致死, zui bu zhi si). The defense also noted that Ma did not have a history of committing crimes, a point that seems to have been accepted by the criminal judicial officials.

Assuming that Ma’s death sentence was carried out in November 2019, the execution would have taken place approximately three years after the start of the first-instance trial in October 2016, making this case much longer than the average time from trial to SPC death penalty approval.

Toward a List of Factors that Impact Length of SPC Review

Although no conclusions can be definitively made from only two cases, the major differences between the two cases might illuminate some of the factors upon which to assess Chinese judicial review of death penalty cases and, in a broader sense, human rights in China. The differences in the Yang Zanyun and Ma Gongxian cases include the following elements:

  • number of deaths (overall severity of the crime)
  • public versus private dispute
  • social pressure
  • complicated criminal defenses
  • previous criminal history

Clearly, Yang’s crimes were particularly heinous and attracted international media attention. His crimes resulted in a substantial threat to social stability, which might have pressured higher courts and the SPC to approve the death penalty quickly. These factors are absent in the Ma Gongxian case that involved the murder of a single individual amidst a family dispute that was not a threat to spill into other corners of society. These factors can be considered in addition to other governmental or political factors involving ongoing counter-terrorist policies and or other campaigns noted previously by Dui Hua. 

It is also interesting to note that Ma Gongxian’s case led to substantial delays perhaps in part because he was able to present a complex criminal defense. Although it might be a positive sign that Ma’s defense strategy was able to produce a more deliberate judicial response, it also might call into question whether criminal defendants with financial means to pay defense lawyers might be able to more successfully challenge their sentences, with poorer defendants more likely to face unjust execution. 

While these factors are by no means an exhaustive or definitive list of factors influencing appellate review in these two cases, they offer a perspective into a legal system that is notorious for its low acquittal rate and lack of transparency. The insights gleaned from these cases and available statistics can help inform the ongoing conversation about how judicial review occurs and how human rights might be protected in China. 

As the coronavirus pandemic upends proceedings, China has vowed not to delay justice in the midst of the outbreak. Such promises have raised concerns that procedural justice may suffer as a result, especially in capital cases, where the review process already faces transparency issues.

1 Of all of the death penalty cases for which statistics are provided, only a small number are reported on in the media or in other public forums; at times, some cases are reported in the media that are not yet included in statistical accounts

Thursday, April 9, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part II

In China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I, Dui Hua discussed Taiwan-related cases of endangering state security as well as alleged espionage charges involving Taiwanese and Chinese nationals. Part II, the latest entry in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, looks at foreign nationals accused of Taiwan-related espionage before examining the political implications of select cases and events.

Taiwan resident Lee Ming-cheh and Chinese national Peng Yuhua were sentenced to five and seven years in prison, respectively, for subversion by the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court on November 28, 2017. Image Credit: Sina News
From Taiwan’s breakaway in 1949 until the early 1990s, Taiwan and China were engaged in intense “psychological warfare,” and Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat to China in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981. Ma Ying-jeou’s ascension to the Taiwanese presidency in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-strait relations. 

Dui Hua has noted discrepancies between public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases and the court statistics (which are detailed in Part I). A possible reason for such discrepancies between the court statistics and cases reported in news media sources is the murky definition of “Taiwan-related” in the court records. Regardless, these discrepancies suggest that either the court statistics do not take into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the concept of Taiwanese espionage is inflated or used opportunistically. 

Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included Taiwan residents, Chinese nationals, and even US citizens and green card holders when labelling a case as Taiwanese espionage. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage.” Among the “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. The PPDB has information on 81 Chinese nationals who were sentenced for Taiwanese espionage from 1998-2016.

Foreign nationals

An alleged case of Taiwanese espionage can also involve Chinese-born foreign nationals, but it is unclear whether these cases are classified as Taiwan-related in the court statistics. 

One such case is that of US citizen Li Shaomin (李少民), who was accused of working for a Taiwanese NGO that Beijing said was a spy agency. When asked to substantiate the charge against him, a presiding judge only presented a one-page memo from the state ministry that wrote, “We verify that this alliance is a spy agency.” Li was ordered to be deported after the case was decided in half an hour on July 14, 2001. 

Also convicted in the same year were US permanent residents Gao Zhan (高瞻) and Qin Guangguang (覃光广). Although they were both sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting intelligence for Taiwan, they were released days ahead of a visit to Beijing by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

The second US citizen charged with spying for Taiwan was Dong Wei (董维), who received a sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment in April 2004. Dong was taken into custody in Guangzhou on September 28, 2003, while on a trade delegation, and accused of lobbying the US government on Taiwan’s behalf. Dong was released in September 2012 after his sentence was reduced by a total of four years. 

The clemency given to them was made possible largely due to improved US-China relations in the early 2000s. Both countries started cultivating regular high-level visits and exchanges of working level officials, resumed military-to-military relations, cooperated on counter-terrorism initiatives, and worked closely to restrain North Korea’s nuclear activities. Dui Hua lobbied for the release of Li Shaomin and Dong Wei. 


Every country has its reasons for developing counter-espionage networks, but in China charges of endangering state security (ESS) are often used against dissidents. For instance, US permanent resident Wang Bingzhang (王炳章) has been serving his life sentence for espionage and “organizing and leading a terrorist group” for almost two decades since his detainment in 2002. According to the judgment, Wang collected and provided military secrets for Taiwan. Wang, however, is also a well-known political dissident who founded two political parties, which are banned in China, and a pro-democracy magazine critical of the Communist Party. 

Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong (程翔) was also charged with spying for Taiwan. Observers believe that he faced reprisal for attempting to obtain a manuscript copy of interviews with Zhao Ziyang, the late reformist icon of the Communist Party who was placed under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005. In 2006, Cheong, a veteran journalist, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Beijing. He was released in early 2008 after spending 1,000 days in prison.

China’s overarching national security objectives and arbitrary classification of state secrets also call into question allegations concerning espionage. This issue can be demonstrated in the following two Taiwanese espionage cases:
  1. Long Jianbin (龙建斌) was sentenced in 2009 to five years’ imprisonment for Taiwanese espionage in Zhuzhou, Hunan. The official account charges Long with collecting information about leadership changes and political, military, and economic developments for someone he “should have known” was a Taiwanese agent. 

    Long’s conviction stemmed in part from government inaction. After taking on initial assignments, Long reported what he had done to relevant government bodies, perhaps concerned that he had gotten involved in illegal matters. Receiving no reply from the government, however, Long continued to collect materials, many of which appear to have been publicly available. The so-called internal publications that Long collected, such as Dispatches from the General Office of the Communist Party of China, contain articles that can be freely viewed online.

  2. Dui Hua’s research into online judgments uncovered the case of Li Quansong (李权松), a Chinese national who was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years’ imprisonment in Shantou, Guangdong, for illegally trafficking in and providing state-secrets for Taiwan. The allegations against Li included collecting two dozen files of state secrets, which were obtained at least partly by taking photos of the Shantou naval dock and vessels and recording information about landings and take-offs of military aircrafts.

    The severity of Li’s punishment was exacerbated by a list of so-called classified books he had purchased from the Beijing National Library, including a catalogue of books ordered by mainland universities and a limited distribution compendium of news and opinion pieces sold principally to government bodies and work units known as Selected Internal Reference. In this case, Li bore the sole onus even though the alleged harm to China’s security was created in part by its own bureaucratic loopholes: it was the Beijing National Library that sold him the so-called secret books.
A 2010 issue of Selected Internal Reference, which bears a confidential secrecy status for a period of six months, is a classified document said to be illegally acquired by “Taiwanese spies.” These internal publications are sometimes available in public libraries or sold to scrap recyclers. Image Credit:
The fact that the court statistics did not record a single Taiwan-related ESS case in 2013 appears to suggest that Chinese nationals accused of providing state secrets to Taiwan are excluded from the criteria that make a case Taiwan-related. This omission of a vast number of Chinese nationals renders the court statistics much less useful to gauge the perceived “Taiwan threat” posed to China. Were the Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign nationals accused of Taiwanese espionage classified as Taiwan-related, then the number of Taiwan-related ESS cases would be substantially higher.

A renewed threat 

The hostility between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) was suspended following the historic handshake between former Chinese leader Hu Jintao and then-KMT chairman Lien Zhan in 2005. China no longer sees the Beijing-friendly KMT as a major state security threat. Instead, the KMT is now seen as a potential partner in what China considers the “unification” of Taiwan with the mainland.

Hostility has resumed since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party began her first term as president in 2016. Both sides have exchanged fiery rhetoric and called each other a threat to national security and social stability. In July 2019, Xi said he would not rule out using force to stem Taiwan’s independence and achieve reunification. Tsai’s landslide re-election victory in January 2020 is widely viewed as a response by Taiwanese voters to threats from China. In response to Tsai’s re-election, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi remarked that separatists will “leave a stink for 10,000 years.”

Although the meaning of Taiwan-related ESS cases remains ambiguous, the number is almost certainly expected to rise amid the souring of cross-strait relations. Taiwan residents are also at heightened risk of arbitrary detention in the mainland. The most well-known victim is Lee Ming-cheh (李明哲), a former worker for the Democratic Progressive Party who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for subversion in Hunan in 2017. Observers believe that Lee was politically pursued because Beijing sees Tsai’s refusal to accept the “one China” principle as a provocative move to promote independence. A conspiratorial view even suggests that Lee’s imprisonment was retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest of a former mainland student for espionage earlier in March 2017.

Lee may not be alone in facing retaliation. In September 2019, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reported that 67 Taiwan residents had been held incommunicado in China since 2016. Among them, at least three are currently held for ESS charges.

Strong US support for Taiwan in recent years has likely contributed to China’s more aggressive stance. On March 26, 2020, President Trump enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which aims to help Taiwan gain participation in international organizations and to discourage Taiwan’s allies from cutting ties with the island due to pressure from Beijing. Global Times responded that the legislation “demonstrates the US’s consistent plots to contain China’s development and obstruct the country’s reunification by playing the Taiwan card.”

The ambiguities in how courts classify Taiwan-related cases make it difficult to understand how cases of alleged Taiwan espionage are dealt with in the legal system and by the media. Discrepancies between what is reported in the court statistics as opposed to other public records also suggest that China’s mobilization of the “Taiwan threat” is motivated by political interests at least as much as by concerns for mainland security. Taiwan, on the other hand, is facing increasingly threatening rhetoric from an opponent that openly speaks of its annexation, be it peaceful or not, as inevitable.

Tsai’s successful re-election, combined with the strong US-Taiwan ties, has coincided with the Chinese government’s escalation of rhetoric to address the “Taiwan threat.” Under such circumstances, China is more likely than ever to exacerbate its clampdown on Taiwanese spies in the name of safeguarding state security. The sweeping crackdown will not only involve Taiwan residents, but also Chinese or foreign nationals who may be unlucky enough to be scapegoated as Taiwanese spies. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I

This post, the fourth in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, discusses so-called “Taiwan-related” cases of endangering state security in mainland China.

Taiwan scrambled F-16 fighter jets (L) to intercept Chinese H-6 bombers (R) flying around the island on February 9 and 10, 2020. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army resumed regular “island encirclement” drills to deter pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen after she took office in 2016. Image Credit: official Facebook page of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense
The self-ruling island of Taiwan has been a thorn in China’s side since the island’s breakaway in 1949. Viewed by China as a territory awaiting reunification, Taiwan is a potential military flashpoint, with both sides of the strait conducting clandestine intelligence operations in each other’s territory.

Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-straits relations. In 2017, Taiwanese news media sources said that there were approximately 5,000 Chinese spies in Taiwan, although the Chinese government dismissed these reports. In September 2018, China’s state security departments announced that over a hundred Taiwanese spy cases had been prosecuted amid its “Thunderbolt 2018” campaign. China accused Taiwan of luring mainland students studying in Taiwan with “money, love and friendship,” as well as using honey traps to recruit them as spies.

The “Taiwan threat” has long been a major part of the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric, but how it articulates this perceived danger has varied. This post, the latest in Dui Hua’s series using statistics from the Supreme People’s Court, compares public information sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with court statistics. Much like in its coverage of Hong Kong-related cases, ambiguity and inconsistencies in reporting suggest an opaque system prone to opportunistic interpretations of criminal law.

Cross-Strait Espionage

“Thunderbolt 2018” may be the most publicized recent event, but similar spy allegations have been levelled by both sides since the China-Taiwan divide in 1949. China and Taiwan accuse each other of seeking to carry out “infiltration and sabotage activities.” In China, tens of thousands of “remnants” and alleged spies of Kuomintang (KMT) were sentenced and executed for counterrevolution alongside other class enemies such as landlords, rich farmers, bad influencers, and rightists in the years following 1949. 

For almost half a century until the early 1990s, the two sides were engaged in intense “psychological warfare” involving the use of megaphones, radio stations, balloons, and floating carriers containing leaflets to spread rumors and disinformation in order to misdirect enemy plans, encourage political defections, and stir unrest. Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981: about 60 percent of the 3,600 counterrevolutionary correspondences discovered in China in the prior year were sent to Hong Kong and Japan-based KMT agents. In 1989, China also blamed Taiwan for ramping up its psychological warfare and espionage networks with the goal of recapturing the mainland during the political turmoil commonly known as June Fourth. 

The threat from Taiwan, however, appears to have been superseded by emerging domestic dissent after counterrevolution was expunged and largely repackaged as endangering state security (ESS) in 1997. Since then, splittism and inciting splittism have consistently accounted for the majority of China’s ESS cases nationwide. Used almost exclusively against Uyghurs and Tibetans, the two ESS offenses do not appear to have obvious connections to Taiwan.

Table 1. Taiwan-related ESS cases concluded in China, 1998-2016
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

The 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Statistics seems to confirm that the threat posed by Taiwan was rather negligible for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998. Of the 5,804 ESS cases concluded during this period, 37, or less than one percent, were classified as “Taiwan-related.” All but one Taiwan-related ESS case concerned espionage (the single exception was a case of “illegally trafficking in state secrets” in 2000). 

The number of Taiwan-related ESS cases cannot clearly indicate how Taiwan is perceived as a security threat to China. Comparing information from public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with the court statistics suggests that either the court statistics have downplayed the influence of Taiwan by not taking into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the rhetoric used by China to describe the threat posed by Taiwan is disproportionate to the severity of Taiwanese meddling as noted by its justice system.

Comparing numbers

The majority of Taiwan-related ESS cases from 1998-2016 were concluded amid the escalating cross-straits tensions of the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian presidencies (both are accused of exploiting Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment to win the elections). Of the 37 Taiwan-related ESS cases, at least 29 were concluded when Lee and Chen were presidents. This number appears to represent only a small portion of what China publicly disclosed within the same period. 

In December 2003, Xinhua News Agency reported breaking a batch of Taiwanese espionage cases in just one year involving 24 Taiwanese and 19 Chinese residents who operated on the mainland. The following year, four Taiwan espionage cases in Zhejiang were widely publicized, with four defendants from Taiwan and one from the mainland. The 2004 cases were linked to statements by Chen Shui-bien, who revealed detailed knowledge about the location and number of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan. 

Cross-strait rapprochement that began when Ma Ying-jeou became the Taiwanese president in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. The trend is also reflected in Table 1: only five Taiwan-related cases were recorded between 2009 and 2016. Nevertheless, the court statistics are in stark contrast with what was reported by the Global Times in 2014. The report stated that nearly 40 Taiwanese espionage cases across 15 provinces and municipalities had been solved in that year, compared to only one Taiwan-related ESS case reported in the court records. The media reports on Taiwanese espionage cases were mostly related to mainland students who had studied in Taiwan.

A possible reason for such discrepancies between the court statistics and cases reported in news media sources is the murky definition of “Taiwan-related” in the court records. It is unclear if cases designated as “Taiwan-related” refer exclusively to those involving Taiwan residents. 

However, Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included both Taiwan residents and Chinese nationals when labelling a case Taiwanese espionage. In some cases, US citizens and green card holders can likewise be labelled Taiwanese spies. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database records information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage,” a term court judgments sometimes use when describing a case.

Taiwan residents

Table 2. Sentence breakdown of "Taiwanese spies" with information in Dui Hua's PPDB.
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

Before China’s reform and opening in 1979, Taiwanese agents concentrated much of their intelligence operations in colonial Hong Kong because both sides could rarely access each other’s territory. China’s opening provided an opportunity for Taiwan to directly develop intelligence networks in the mainland. In 2014, Chinese state news media said that Taiwanese spies masqueraded as travelers, family visitors of mainland residents, and businesspeople. More recently, the sprawling spy networks have allegedly included tourists who make short-term visits to the mainland and “Chinese brides” who marry Taiwanese men.

One notable case is Li Junmin, who was accused of counterrevolution espionage and sentenced to death in 1983. His sentence was subsequently revised to death with two-year reprieve by the Supreme People’s Court. Dui Hua started to intervene on his behalf in 2002. Li was released in 2006 after receiving several sentence reductions.

It must be noted that Taiwanese residents in the mainland are also known to have been recruited as Chinese spies and to have received prison sentences in Taiwan. However, the majority of the alleged Taiwanese spies sentenced in China are not Taiwan residents. Among the over 100 “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. Most of these cases were reported in news media sources in the decade after 1997.

Chinese nationals

Chinese nationals account for the majority of people sentenced in China for Taiwanese espionage. In the two decades after China’s reform, Chinese nationals accused of espionage have typically been portrayed as unemployed or whiners who developed “dissatisfaction with current reality” after being poisoned by Taiwan’s psychological warfare. In recent years, common allegations against them include illicitly taking photos of military bases and photocopying classified books and internal documents. In 2009, Taiwan lifted the ban on accepting exchange students from China as a goodwill gesture to thaw cross-strait relations. Chinese state news media sources have reported an increasing number of Taiwanese spy cases involving mainland exchange students who returned from Taiwan

China’s "anti-spy manual," circulated in 2019, features a Taiwanese espionage case in which a mainland exchange student is said to have been compromised by a Taiwanese woman who works for the military intelligence service. Image Credit:
Dui Hua’s PPDB has information on 81 Chinese nationals who were sentenced for Taiwanese espionage from 1998-2016. Fifty-five of them received fixed-term imprisonment, with half of them sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment or longer. Eleven people were sentenced to life imprisonment, three people were sentenced to death with reprieve, and at least eight people were executed during the same period. Most of these cases, again, were concluded from 1998-2008. Given this number of Chinese nationals, it is doubtful whether the court statistics classify all of them as Taiwan-related even though they are labelled Taiwanese spies by state news media, court judgments, and other government sources. 

Wo Weihan (沃维汉) and Guo Wanjun (郭万钧) are the last known Chinese nationals who were executed for Taiwanese espionage. They were given death sentences in 2007 for allegedly passing information on the mainland’s missile guidance system to Taiwan. Wo’s execution in 2008 was strongly condemned by the European Union and the United States, which had sought a stay of execution.

Since 2008, there has only been one publicly disclosed death sentence for espionage involving a Chinese national: that of computer technician Huang Yu (黄宇), who was accused of selling 150,000 classified documents to foreign agents from 2002-2011. Available sources, however, did not say for whom Huang had spied.

Alleged cases of Taiwanese espionage involving foreign nationals, as well as the possible use of Taiwan-based espionage allegations for political gain, are discussed in Part II available here.