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.   

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Big Increase in Women Behind Bars in China

Female inmates in political and education reform classes. Image credit: Hubei Prison Administrative Bureau 2019

Statistics released by China’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and recently published by the World Prison Brief have revealed a significant increase in the number of women prisoners incarcerated in MOJ prisons since 2015, the last year for which a number was made available prior to 2019. The numbers were provided in a statement by an MOJ official to the Asia Pacific Conference of Correctional Administrators (APCCA) meeting in Mongolia. The number of women prisoners in MOJ prisons in 2019 has yet to be made available.
As of mid-2015, there were 107,131 female prisoners in MOJ prisons, accounting for 6.5 percent of China’s population of prisoners held in all MOJ-administered prisons and juvenile reformatories. The number rose to approximately 143,000 as of mid-2018, equivalent to 8.4 percent of that population. This represents an increase of approximately 34 percent over a three-year period, or an average growth rate of more than 10 percent per year. 

The numbers exclude women prisoners in Qincheng Prison, which is managed by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). More significantly, the numbers do not include women held in pre-trial detention centers operated by the MPS and the State Security Ministry. Nor do they include women held in other carceral facilities like “legal education centers,” often used to hold female petitioners and practitioners of unorthodox religious groups like Falun Gong and Almighty God. A large but unknown number of Uyghur and Kazakh women in Xinjiang who are involuntarily held in a network of internment facilities known as “vocational training centers” are also omitted in the MOJ statistics. Finally, it should be borne in mind that the numbers are for adult females and do not include juvenile females incarcerated in juvenile reformatories run by the MOJ. 

† Figures only available as of the middle of the year. 
‡ This is an approximate figure. Dui Hua estimates suggest that the actual figure may be higher. 
Sources: For 2003-2015 figures: Dui Hua, China Statistical Yearbook 2005-2013, APCCA Conference Report 2013-2015; For 2018 figure: World Prison Brief

In February 2014, Dui Hua, together with partners, held an International Symposium on Women in Prison in Hong Kong. The symposium, which aimed to introduce the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners (the Bangkok Rules), was well attended by officials from China. In October of the same year, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm traveled to Beijing where he and Judge Leonard Edwards met with Mr. Wang Shengming, Vice Chairman of the Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. Wang advised the two Americans that China was considering incorporating the Bangkok Rules into Chinese legislation, but to date little appears to have been done. Rather than adopt policies that slow the influx of women prisoners, China seems to have opted to build more women’s prisons. 

To cope with the rising number of women sentenced to prison, China has built 10 new women’s prisons since 2015. There were 31 women's prisons in mid-2015, 38 in mid-2017, and by mid-2018 there were 41.i In the past, most provinces had only one prison for women. Now, ten provinces have two, and Yunnan has three. Noticeably, the Tibetan Autonomous Region does not have a women’s prison. By building more prisons, China has managed to keep the average number of prisoners per prison stable at around 3,500 per prison, high by international standards. Overcrowding of Chinese women’s prisons remains a serious problem. 

Sources: China Statistical Yearbook 2013, APCCA Annual Report 2015, World Prison Brief

In its 2019 submission to the thematic session of the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice held in June 2019, Dui Hua urged the MOJ to release the current number of women held in its prisons. Several months after Dui Hua made this recommendation, the MOJ released the mid-2018 figure to the APCCA at its September 2019 meeting in Mongolia.

Hong Kong’s Correctional Services department has also released numbers that are published in World Prison Brief. They reveal that, in 2019, more than 20 percent of the territory’s prison population were women, one of the highest such percentages in the world. Nearly half are non-local and convicted of non-violent crimes, including drug trafficking and immigration violations.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were 130,000 women in American prisons and 101,000 in local jails in 2019. The number of women in Chinese pre-trial detention centers is not known. It nevertheless appears to be the case that the number of women in Chinese prisons now exceeds the number of women in American prisons, as Dui Hua predicted in its Human Rights Journal entries published in June 2015 and February 2016.

A list of the 41 women’s prisons administrated by the MoJ is below.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Court Statistics on Splittism & Inciting Splittism, Part III: Mongols & Han Chinese

The following has been posted to Dui Hua's Human Rights Journal. It is the third in a three-part series examining the application of splittism and inciting splittism charges using Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016.

Part I examined the application of splittism and inciting splittism from 1998-2016 as it corresponded to major incidents of ethnic unrest in China.

Part II focused on two ethnic groups who are more likely to face trial for splittism and inciting splittism: Uyghurs and Tibetans. Court statistics discussed in both parts indicate that splittism and inciting splittism charges were disproportionately used against ethnic minorities. However, a breakdown of ethnicities is not available.


Compared to Uyghurs and Tibetans, Mongolian splittism is rarely discussed in state discourse, perhaps reflecting its status as a smaller security threat to China. An important reason is that ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia have been heavily assimilated with Han Chinese. Despite Inner Mongolia’s designation as China’s first autonomous region, ethnic Mongols have long been greatly outnumbered by Han Chinese in the region. The 2010 census indicated that ethnic Mongols accounted for a mere 17 percent of the population in Inner Mongolia, compared to 80 percent Han. 

Signs of Mongolian nationalism emerged among university students in the 1980s. While some preferred political separation and the establishment of an independent Inner Mongolian state, others promoted unity with Mongolia and the ethnic Mongols in Russia. Separatist sentiments were further rekindled by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although there were demonstrations in Inner Mongolia in 1990 in favor of independence, key figures were quickly arrested. In 1991, leaders of a group based near Hohhot were sentenced to two years for separatist activity, according to British Sinologist Michael Dillon. In the same year, Mongol independence activist Xi Haiming (席海明) fled persecution in China to Mongolia and was granted political asylum in Germany in 1993.

Hada (left), founder of the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for splittism and espionage in 1996. Image credit: Radio Free Asia
Perhaps the most iconic case was Hada (哈达). Unlike Xi Haiming, Hada chose to stay in Inner Mongolia to continue his peaceful activism and formed the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance with other Mongol activists in 1992. The alliance’s mission was to oppose colonization by the Han people and call for self-determination, freedom, and democracy in Southern Mongolia. He was later sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for conspiring to split the country and espionage. Having completed his full sentence without a sentence reduction in December 2010, Hada continues to live under close police surveillance and numerous restrictions, including a travel ban and frozen bank accounts.

Other than Hada, cases of ethnic Mongolian splittism have not been widely reported or well documented. Dui Hua’s research into government gazettes unearthed only a few cases of endangering state security:
  • In 1992, 11 of the 197 people classified as the “targeted population” in Ordos were splittists;
  • In 1996, Ordos police solved the case of the illegal ethnic splittism publication Dure and the case of the “Ordos Branch of the Southern Mongolia Democratic League Central Committee” ethnic splittism organization. Police quickly uncovered and stopped a small number of Mongol students who were carrying out efforts in support of Hada’s “Southern Mongolia Democratic League;”
  • In 2009, two of the 18 people classified as the targeted population in Urad Rear Banner were “ethnic splittists.”
Large-scale ethnic Mongol protests erupted in 2011; they were triggered by collective grievances over the ecological destruction of grasslands as a result of excessive mining operations dominated by Han-owned entities in Inner Mongolia. Pro-independence groups overseas also pointed out that the protests had nothing to do with self-determination or independence but were focused on legal rights for indigenous herders. Beijing, however, still blamed foreign forces for fueling unrest among ethnic Mongols. 

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database only has information on four ethnic Mongols who were convicted of inciting splittism over the past two decades.
  • On October 29, 2008, the Xining Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Quehezhou (却合周) and E’erjian (俄尔尖) to nine and ten years in prison, respectively. They were both detained on April 16, 2008. The timing of their detention coincided with the protests which spread across the Tibetan plateau before the Beijing Olympics.
  • Lobsang Gongpo (洛藏公保) was likely involved in the same case; he was sentenced to ten years in prison by the same court on the same day. Despite his Tibetan-sounding name, Lobsang Gongpo is an ethnic Mongol, according to a court judgment Dui Hua discovered online.
  • Quehezhou, E’erjian and Lobsang Gongpo are all from Henan Mongol Autonomous County, an ethnic Mongol-majority county in the south of Huanggang Tibetan Autonomous Precture in Qinghai Province. The judgments did not provide further information about the case.
  • In July 2019, Lhamjab A. Borigin received a one-year suspended prison sentence in Shili Yin Gool for splittism and illegal business activity. The charges stemmed from his book written in Mongolian about the Cultural Revolution. Published in 2006 by an underground press and subsequently translated into Mandarin, the book discloses survivor testimonies and details torture techniques used during political campaigns.

Han Chinese

Court statistics have confirmed that splittism and inciting splittism have been disproportionately applied to ethnic minorities, but no less striking is the remainder of the defendants who are not classified as ethnic minorities. Dui Hua believes that these people are Han Chinese.

Charts 1 and 2 show that of the 3,936 people convicted of splittism and inciting splittism with judgments taking effect from 1998-2016, 347, or 8.8 percent, were not ethnic minorities. There was a slightly bigger proportion of non-ethnic minorities in inciting splittism cases: 155 people, or 14 percent, in inciting splittism cases, compared to 192, or just 6.5 percent, in splittism cases.

In inciting splittism cases, the number of non-ethnic minority defendants varied from 1.6 percent in 2001 to 83 percent of all defendants in 2012. In 2006, slightly over half of the 13 people convicted of inciting splittism were not ethnic minorities; in 2012, 15 of 18 people convicted were Han Chinese.

Unlike Uyghurs, Tibetans, and, to a lesser extent, ethnic Mongols who are imprisoned for promoting ethnic independence, demanding genuine or greater autonomy, or criticizing China’s ethnic policy, the reasons for convicting Han Chinese in splittism or inciting splittism cases are not immediately obvious.

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database only has information on one Han Chinese who was convicted of inciting splittism: Wang Jicheng (王集成) was sentenced to eight years in prison in Nanping, Fujian, in December 2009 for inciting splittism, inciting subversion, and teaching methods of committing crimes. In this case, Wang was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting splittism. A judgment Dui Hua discovered indicated that Wang was released on December 25, 2015, more than seven months earlier than the original release date, without providing information on his criminal acts, which were said to have incited other people to divide China.

A case recently posted by Wei Quan Wang shed some light on the obscure cases of Han Chinese inciting splittism. Originally from Wuhan, Li Ke stood trial in Xining, Qinghai, where he was caught red-handed displaying a “Free Tibet” banner and a Snow Lion flag at a Tibetan monastery. The source also said Li was found in possession of a U-drive with images of overseas Tibetan protesters disrupting the 2008 Olympic Torch relay. The trial outcome is nevertheless unclear.

The following two cases show how Han Chinese can be at risk of being accused of inciting splittism because of their online speech, although neither was found guilty of this particular ESS crime:
  • Huang Qi (黄琦) was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in February 2003. Prosecutors moved forward with the inciting splittism charge against Huang because his website contained articles about ethnic independence. The court dismissed the inciting splittism charge and upheld that Huang did not have the intent to divide the country since he did not author the articles.
  • Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for inciting ethnic hatred, picking quarrels, and provoking trouble in December 2015. The initial allegations against him included inciting splittism, a charge stemming from his negative online comments about China’s policies in Xinjiang. Pu urged China to stop treating Xinjiang as a colony and to stop acting as a conqueror and plunderer.


The developments in Taiwan might be relevant to understand how China curbs separatism among Han Chinese in the mainland. Dui Hua, however, has yet to find proof that promoting Taiwan independence is a reason for conviction in cases of splittism or inciting splittism in mainland China. 

Over the years, Beijing has proactively blocked Taiwan in the international arena in a bid to suppress independence. China typically undertakes countermeasures and ramps up rhetoric against the Taiwan independence movement when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) becomes the majority ruling party in Taiwan. A year after Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was re-elected as Taiwan president, China ratified the Anti-Succession Law in 2005. The law claims that Taiwan is a part of China and suggests the use of non-peaceful means against Taiwan independence in the event of a declaration of independence. 

Evidence suggests that Han Chinese are not necessarily criminally liable for discussing Taiwan independence online. A court judgment Dui Hua discovered indicated that Wang Yong (王勇) was only given “admonishment” in Shandong for posting messages on Twitter to “incite Taiwan independence.” Wang was not imprisoned for tweets about Taiwan independence, but rather for the 1,200 “anti-Communist Party” messages and images he tweeted as of August 14, 2019. In January 2020, Wang was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Hong Kong

China has been increasingly wary of the newly emerged independence movement in Hong Kong. Beginning with the student-led movement in 2014 calling for the right to vote for their chief executive, the calls for independence have become more visible in the wake of the civil unrest through the second half of 2019 triggered by the ill-fated extradition bill.

A man found carrying a "Hong Kong Independence" flag in his backpack during a protest on July 1, 2020 was the first person arrested under the Hong Kong National Security Law. Netizens said that the flag said "no to" (反对) in tiny print above the independence slogan. The man has been released without formal charges at the time of publication. Image credit: Hong Kong Police Force Twitter account
As the coronavirus outbreak subsided from May-June 2020, throngs of demonstrators chanting pro-democracy slogans and displaying banners saying “Hong Kong Independence” and “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” returned to the city’s streets and shopping malls. Chinese officials condemned the Hong Kong protesters as a “political virus” using violence to promote independence claims.The Hong Kong government has also declared that the protest slogans are pro-independence, secessionist and subversive, and can be prosecuted under the newly enacted national security law, which came into force on June 30, 2020.

Openly supporting Hong Kong independence in the mainland is a risky proposition, but this act alone does not necessarily constitute a crime of ESS. Dui Hua’s research into online judgments found that Twitter user Tang Guogang (唐国刚) was sentenced to 18 months in prison, also for “picking quarrels,” in Liaoning in December 2019. His imprisonment stemmed in part from his messages supporting the independence of both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The court also found him guilty of tweeting hundreds of “subversive” messages attacking China, the Communist Party, and the socialist system. 

In a separate case, a local court in Foshan, Guangdong, sentenced Deng Xiqiang (邓锡强) to two years in prison (suspended for three years) on January 20, 2020, also for “picking quarrels.” Deng was accused of using circumvention software to access Instagram and post 48 messages, which “attacked the socialist system, satirized Chinese leaders, and vilified the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s government.” The court also found him guilty of posting “unhealthy and fake” information about Hong Kong independence. Other allegations against Deng included the “yellow umbrella” accessories he designed in support of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Movement in 2014.

The two cases above were concluded before the National People’s Congress passed national security legislation on June 30, 2020. The law, which covers secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, signals a harsher crackdown to crush the Hong Kong independence movement. It remains to be seen whether mainland courts will mete out more severe punishment to deter dissenters who publicly express sympathy for the Hong Kong cause under the catch-all crime of “picking quarrels.” It is also possible that the same acts conducted online will be construed as endangering state security amid a worsening political climate.

Minor splittism movements

There are a few other minor splittism movements in China advocating for provincial independence, but the threat is more apparent than real. Individuals who promote this cause are not known to have been charged with splittism or inciting splittism:

The Haizhu District People's Court convicted Yang Xubin (杨旭彬) of "picking quarrels" for spray painting graffiti slogans, including "Liberate Guangzhou" and "Guangdong independence," as shown in the image of a court judgment posted online. The court did not explain why the slogans did not amount to splittism or other endangering national security crimes. Image credit: China Political Prisoner Concern
  • Yang Xubin (杨旭彬), of Han ethnicity, was sentenced to nine months in prison for “picking quarrels” in January 2020. He spray-painted graffiti of slogans in Guangzhou about the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong and also daubed slogans of “Free Guangzhou” and “Guangdong Independence.”
  • In a separate case, Wang Zhan (王展) was detained for subversion on October 15, 2019 upon returning to China from Finland, where he pursued his post-doctorate study. Wang, whose ethnicity is unclear, was an advocate for independence for Manchuria and Shanghai.
It is hard to understand the rationale behind the tactics of criminalization against Han Chinese supporters of any independence movement. The above cases demonstrated that splittism and inciting splittism are not necessarily applicable even when Han Chinese openly criticize China’s ethnic policy or disseminate information about independence for Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other less developed provincial independence movements. Because of the opacity of China’s criminal justice system, the identities, acts, and fates of the 347 Han Chinese who were convicted of splittism and inciting splittism from 1998-2016 remain unknown. 

What is clear is that the application of splittism and inciting splittism charges has an ethnic bias. Similar acts to split or incite splittism by Uyghurs, Tibetans, or ethnic Mongols are more likely to lead to more severe consequences. Instead of “picking quarrels,” they will likely be charged with splittism and inciting splittism—crimes of endangering state security, which China gives utmost priority and carry much harsher prison sentences. 

On a final note, the drop in splittism and inciting splittism cases beginning in 2014 is no cause for celebration. In an upcoming post, Dui Hua will analyze the reasons and explain how the Chinese government has employed new tactics of criminalization against ethnic minority dissenters: from using splittism and inciting splittism to non-ESS crimes, including terrorism-related crimes and inciting ethnic hatred. 

China’s propaganda often denounces western critics for their “hypocrisy” and defends its own anti-splittism law by drawing comparisons with separatist movements in the west. While it is true that punishing splittism-adjacent crimes through other laws, including anti-terrorism measures, are in place in western democracies to suppress separatism, people in many countries and regions other than China and Hong Kong are at least “free to express secessionist views.” In Spain, political parties that support the independence of Catalonia are represented in the parliament. By contrast, China has zero tolerance for political parties that promote splittism. It also makes peaceful speech punishable under splittism, inciting splittism, or other criminal offenses.