Tuesday, January 30, 2024

New Rules on Religion in Xinjiang: Comparing State Council and Provincial Congress Regulations

The entrance to Ihlas Supermarket in the Kashgar city center in August 2018. Various banners and posters bearing political slogans in Mandarin and Uyghur, with slogans promoting speaking Mandarin and ethnic unity. Image credit: Kubilayaxun / CC BY-SA 4.0

Near the end of 2023, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) issued new regulations on administrating religious affairs in the region. The restive province remains a source of international controversy — Western nations have decried widespread surveillance and religious repression while China has refuted these as politically motivated criticisms and pointed to its support from Muslim-majority nations to validate its policies. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 2022 report concluded that “serious human rights violations” that may constitute crimes against humanity have been committed in the region, and the new regulations passed more than a year after that report and China’s rejection of its findings. 

The fourteenth XUAR People's Congress passed the Religious Affairs Regulation on December 22, 2023, at its seventh session. The new regulations will take effect on February 1, 2024, a week after its human rights record was examined in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review in Geneva. Xinjiang was notably a recurring issue during this review, which took place on January 23, 2024. 

The regional regulations are based in large part on the 2018 National Religious Affairs Regulation issued by the State Council. The Xinjiang regulations introduce several provisions “in consideration of [the] actual circumstances in the autonomous region.” (XJ Article 1) 

Using translations done by the China Law Translation, Dui Hua has put together a side-by-side comparison (link) of the XUAR Religious Affairs Regulations (2024), hereafter referred to as XJ regulations, and the State Council Religious Affairs Regulations (2018), hereafter SC regulations

In the XJ regulations, some provisions from the SC regulations are re-arranged and combined. They also omit details of some provisions included in the SC version by simply referring to them as “in accordance with the national laws, regulations, and rules.” 

Such regulations and rules include the Measures for Administration of Religious Venues introduced by the State Religious Affairs Bureau, which went into effect on September 1, 2023. Some of the notable differences between the XJ and SC versions are highlighted below.  

Battling Against Endangering State Security, Extremism, & Ethnic Hatred 

The stated goal of the XJ regulations is to protect citizens' freedom of religious worship and to maintain religious and social harmony. Both the XJ regulations and the SC regulations highlight the responsibility of religious groups and believers to fight criminal activities carried out in the name of religion. 

Both regulations reference the need to battle extremism (SC Article 3. XJ Article 4) and activities that might endanger state security (SC Article 4, 63, 64. XJ Article 5), especially splittism (SC Article 4, 63, 73(1). XJ Article 5, 49(2)). While both versions strongly emphasize the importance of promoting and maintaining “ethnic harmony” the XJ regulations also reference “inciting ethnic hatred” in its text (XJ Article 5, 49(2)), which is not mentioned in the SC text. 

XJ expands on the emphasis against religious extremism and includes specific behavior in Article 47: 

  • ...must not use appearances, apparel, signs, symbols, and so forth to play up religious fanaticism; 
  • [must] not coerce or force others to wear religious extremist clothing or wear religious extremist symbols or signs. 

Publishing & Personal Consumption of Religious Materials 

While SC Article 45 permits religious groups, religious schools, and churches and temples to print materials for internal use (“in accordance with relevant laws on publishing”), XJ Article 48 requires such publications to be reviewed and approved by the regional religious affairs bureau. A printing permit issued by the regional news and press department is required and distribution can only be within the approved scope.  

De-extremization propaganda paintings. Image credit People.com.cn 

SC Article 45 stipulates religious materials cannot contain content: 
  1. that undermines harmonious co-existence between religious and non-religious citizens; 
  2. that undermines the harmony between different religions or within a religion;  
  3. that discriminates against or insults religious or non-religious citizens;  
  4. that advocates religious extremism;  
  5. that contravenes the principle of religions' independence and self-governance. 
XJ Article 49 expands on this by prohibiting five more types of illegal content: 

(1) that undermines national unity, social stability, economic development, and scientific and technological progress;   
(2) that incites ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination, and undermines ethnic unity;   
(3) that promotes ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism;  
(7) that endangers social morality or the traditional culture of China; and 
(8) Other content prohibited by laws, regulations, and state provisions. 

XJ Article 50 further restricts individual consumption of contents that are deemed illegal (as defined by Article 49) on the internet or other digital formats, including mobile phones and portable data storage. The article adds that “Organizations and individuals must not illegally listen to, watch, or transmit overseas religious radio and television programs.” 

However, the XJ version omits SC Article 46 which regulates importing religious materials from overseas for personal use.  

A photo of the Urumqi bazaar taken in 2005. Image credit: 29cm via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 

Religious School Appointments & Sinicization 

The XJ regulations largely follow the SC regulations in “Chapter II: Religious Groups” (on rules for personnel appointments) and “Chapter III: Religious Schools” (on religious training), but it adds the requirement that religious schools and religious training should contribute to social harmony and Chinese culture by incorporating “Chinese characteristics.” 

XJ Article 11(3) stipulates that research on religious culture and texts should: 

“... thoroughly uncover content in religious teachings and rules that are conducive to social harmony, modern progress, and health and civilization; and make interpretations of religious teachings and rules in line with contemporary China's requirements for development and improvement, and in line with the outstanding traditional Chinese culture.” 

XJ Article 14 also asks religious schools to: 

“...follow the path of school operations with Chinese characteristics, running the school in accordance with law, advancing educational and teaching reforms, and increasing the quality of school operations.” 

Sinicization reappears in “Chapter IV: Religious Activity Sites” which regulates building, renovation, and expansion of religious sites and venues. XJ Article 26 adds that sites that are newly built or renovated, expanded, or rebuilt shall “reflect Chinese characteristics and style in areas such as their architecture, sculptures, paintings, and decorations.” 

Conduct of Religious Professionals 

While the SC regulations includes brief, generalized provisions regulating the conduct of religious professionals, including the requirement to follow relevant laws and rules and to protect their rites, the XJ regulations call on personnel to also follow orthodoxy and anti-extremism measures.  

XJ Article 38 further defines specific acts that are not permitted, including: 

  1. Making “edicts” [DH: Idhn—permission, promise], appointing religious presiding officiants, and restoring or indirectly restoring feudal privileges;  
  2. Accepting canonization, appointments, or honorary titles from overseas organizations or individuals; 
  3. Accepting instruction on engaging in religious and educational activities from overseas organizations or individuals;  
  4. Setting up private meeting places and establishing illegal religious organizations;  
  5. Conducting unauthorized “living Buddha reincarnation" activities. 

Of these, (1) is a common practice among Chinese Hui Muslims, and (5) is specific to Tibetan Buddhism.  

A roadside sign in Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, written in both Uyghur and Chinese with the phrase “I liken the party to my mother. Image credit: Kubilayaxun / CC BY-SA 4.0 

An Expansion of Past Regulations 

It is important to note that the XJ regulations are an expansion of the SC regulations. On the surface, it appears that the XJ regulations include fewer mentions of the phrase “extremism.” However, the regional version refers in places to being “in accordance with the relevant national laws and regulations,” which is a clear reference to the SC regulations. The regional regulations also made combating splittism and extremism a top priority, including allocating these responsibilities to religious schools and religious professionals. Additionally, the XUAR previously passed de-extremification regulations in 2017. 

The XJ regulations build on the SC ones to further dictate how individuals and institutions can engage with state-sanctioned religions. Beyond the restrictions and obligations outlined above, both regulations also place restrictions on adhering to specific pillars of Islam. For example, going abroad for the Hajj is permitted only when organized by a national Islamic group (in this case the Islamic Association of China), and both regulations include rules against accepting overseas funds (SC Article 57; XJ Article 45) with a few exceptions, which may impinge on the third pillar of Islam known as Zakat, or almsgiving). 

Similarly, other regions like Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region have their own religious affairs regulations. Qinghai’s went into effect on October 1, 2021 and Tibet’s a month later on November 1, 2021. The Tibetan regulations also include some provisions specific to Tibetan Buddhist tradition and beliefs, such as reincarnation. The Chinese government’s insistence on controlling all aspects of religious practice, from what materials adherents can possess to transnational processes, reflect how national security and social stability concerns drive policies that demand adherence to the state above all.   

Dui Hua has compiled a side-by-side comparison of the XJ and SC regulations and provided comments where appropriate: Comparison of XJ and SC Regulations 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Surprise Success in Bridging the US & China is a Dialogue on Juvenile Justice

US-China relations are thought to be all-time low since the two countries resumed engagement in the 1970s. But in one surprising area, the United State and China are benefiting from open, cordial, and productive dialogue: improving juvenile justice. 

In an article for Civic Research Insititute’s Juvenile Justice Update Winter 2024 edition, Dui Hua executive director John Kamm details the Dui Hua Foundation’s work on juvenile justice with representatives from China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC). In 2007, Kamm and a Chinese legal expert visited with San Francisco Bay Area legal practitioners. Following this, Kamm, with the MacArthur foundation, organized an official exchange between a Chinese delegation to the United States. At each stop, Chinese legal experts gave presentations on juvenile justice in China and engaged in discussions with US experts about best practices and work to be done.  

The 2008 exchange marked the beginning of Dui Hua’s cooperation with the SPC. In the 15 years since, Dui Hua has facilitated eight other programs, most recently in April 2023. In the journal, Kamm describes some of the key changes that have occurred since these exchanges began. These include: 
  • There has been a continuous drop in juvenile convictions, which have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2013, according to statistics released by the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) in 2022. 
  • In 2022, the number of juvenile convictions reached a record low, with only 27,757 juveniles tried nationwide.  
  • Following the first Dui Hua-facilitated Chinese-U.S. exchange, juvenile convictions continued to decrease year-by-year. Convictions fell below 5 percent for the first time in 2013.
  • The Chinese have incorporated restorative practices into its justice operations, reducing the number of juvenile arrests and prosecutions.  
    • Of particular significance is the wider use of conditional non-prosecution, known in the United States as diversion. In 2022, 26,161 juvenile cases were diverted. In 2013, diversion was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law. Since 2014, the number of juveniles offered conditional non-prosecution increased eightfold. 
    • Record sealing was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law in 2013. A total of 92,694 juveniles had their records sealed from 2020-2022. In 2022, 33,021 juvenile records were sealed, an increase from 28,163 in 2020 and 31,510 in 2021. 
Read the full article [PDF]

Thursday, January 11, 2024

From "Vineyard” to Prison: The House of Joseph

A photo of Kunshan, Suzhou, where the House of Joseph has been known to operate. Image credit: Song Sangroov / CC BY 3.0 DEED 

Dui Hua continues to uncover information on Chinese religious groups following the release of its report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” in March 2022. Three new groups have been identified including the House of Joseph, or yuesejia (约瑟家) in Mandarin Chinese, Xinling Famen (心灵法门), and Corporate Christ (团体基督). 

The House of Joseph is an indigenous Christian group whose members are at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Founded in 1992 by Wei Zhuxiang (魏柱祥) as an offshoot of the Spirit Church, or linglingjiao (灵灵教), the House of Joseph is sometimes called “the third generation” of the True Jesus Church (真耶稣教会) from which the Spirit Church was splintered in 1986. According to Chinese government sources, Wei predicted an apocalypse in 2000 and said that conversion to the House of Joseph was the only way to salvation. He allegedly “distorted” the Bible by proclaiming himself Joseph, son of Jesus. He claimed that the holy spirit had descended on him and his wife, and the couple became the new god after they united as one. He also stated that he was reincarnated as a shepherd in the earthly world in search of “another flock of sheep.” His goal is to launch an evangelizing mission which he calls “the 6,000-Year Project of the God.”  

Unorthodox religious groups often stand accused of illegally amassing a fortune from superstitious believers through “indoctrination” and “mind control.” The House of Joseph is no exception. The church allegedly asks adherents for donations to repent their sins, and it arranges marriages for male adherents who pay a fee from 5,000-20,000 yuan. Following Wei’s unfulfilled apocalyptic prophecy in 2000, Wei started calling on believers to join settlements or communities that he termed “vineyards” and described as swathes of paradise on earth. Believers were admitted after they paid a fee of 2,000 yuan. Chinese government sources reveal that he used the money to create economic entities in garment processing, engineering construction, planting and breeding, catering services, and trading. Violators of his church rules would be ordered to fast, suspended from employment, and even dismissed from his “vineyards.” 

Wei once claimed that his church had as many as 100,000 members. However, Chinese government sources suggest that the group only has a limited reach in China, with over 1,000 devoted members mostly in Huai’an and Kunshan (in Jiangsu Province), and Shanghai. It is unclear when the Chinese government started labelling the House of Joseph an “evil cult,” but a court judgment Dui Hua uncovered states that Wei was among the 12 leading members detained amid a crackdown in 2005. In 2006, the Kunshan City People’s Court convicted Wei of fraud and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison. Wei was released from prison in April 2014. His wife was also sentenced in the same case, but information about the criminal punishment she received is not available. 

Footage of a baptism conducted by the True Jesus Church, which the House of Joseph is thought to have splintered from. Image credit: True Jesus Church live stream 

Re-Indicted in 2020 

Wei continued to develop his church after he was released from prison. In May 2020, Wei was re-arrested in Suqian, Jiangsu, alongside another leading member Wang Shoucai (王守财) for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Six months later, Wei and Wang were among the 17 House of Joseph members who were indicted for violating Article 300. The procuratorate accused them of “disseminating propaganda materials all over the country to promote the cultic ideology of the House of Joseph, collecting donations from believers, and illegally amassing a fortune” since 2017. 

Dui Hua has not been unable to find a court judgment concerning this case. However, given China’s high conviction rates and that Wei reoffended, it is highly likely that Wei received a lengthy prison sentence and is serving a second prison stint in Jiangsu. 

Suqian, Jiangsu, where the House of Joseph leader Wei was arrested after serving his prison sentence. Image credit: Invercargill City Council 

Other Convictions 

    I.    Zhang X 

Besides Wei, Dui Hua found that two other House of Joseph members were convicted prior to his re-indictment in 2020. In the first case, Wei’s nephew surnamed Zhang received a three-year suspended sentence for violating Article 300 in December 2015. Zhang, a farmer, was initially placed under residential surveillance in March 2012. That same month, he was released on bail pending further investigation. He was indicted three years later, in April 2015. The following month, he was released on bail again until the Huaiyin District People’s Court resumed the trial on September 17, 2015. 

Zhang converted to the House of Joseph in 2001 and was appointed by Wei as the head of a Kunshan-based “vineyard” in 2011 while Wei was serving his 10 years and six months’ prison sentence. The court judgment states that Zhang “actively obeyed and earnestly carried out Wei’s orders through letters and verbal messages from prison.” Wei made another prediction of cataclysm which would take place on November 16, 2011 following a nuclear war. Adherents were told that they must seek refuge from three arks (like those used by Noah in religious texts), one of which was in Tibet. Individuals would be denied refuge unless they had been baptized by the House of Joseph by September 12, 2011. Zhang disseminated Wei’s prophecy and continued to help Wei to exert indirect control of church members. 

In preparation for the impending cataclysm, Zhang sold his Jiangsu vineyards and arranged for over a thousand church members to relocate to Xinjiang and Tibet where he intended to re-establish his organizational branch. In Xinjiang, Zhang organized about 60 missionaries to conduct overseas evangelization in Iran and Thailand. Zhang ordered one of the teams to travel to Iran for a religious exchange and requested that church members print 4,000 leaflets with Farsi translations of the church doctrines. In Tibet, Zhang formed four other teams of missionaries to preach domestically. All their activities were funded directly by the House of Joseph. 

In November 2011, one of the missionaries Zhang dispatched to China’s northeast was detained. Foreseeing an imminent risk of police investigation, Zhang deleted all correspondences with the missionary and dismissed all church members who had relocated to Xinjiang and Tibet. Before Zhang was able to transfer out the church funds, police seized over 54 million yuan, 2,100 grams of gold, and an apartment owned by the church in Jiangsu.  

Zhang’s punishment was lenient  because he turned himself in and disbanded his organizational branch in 2011. During the court trial, he claimed to have recanted his religious beliefs by questioning Wei’s unfulfilled prophecy concerning the nuclear war. He also pledged to not join any cult activities. Zhang’s three-year suspended sentence ended in December 2018. 

An image of Huai’an, one of the locations where the House of Joseph has been based. Image credit: Huai’an Economic and Technological Development Zone 

    II.    Chen X 

The House of Joseph continued to operate despite suffering a major blow after Zhang shuttered his Tibet and Xinjiang organizational branches. A court judgment Dui Hua acquired indicated another Jiangsu farmer surnamed Chen was sentenced to three years in prison on October 15, 2015, also for violating Article 300. Chen organized home gatherings with 15 other members despite “knowing full well that the church had been banned by relevant authorities” since February 10, 2010.  

Unlike Zhang, Chen does not appear to have been in close contact with Wei. Chen said all the 16 church members who took part in the home gatherings were God’s descendants and possessed powers to cure sicknesses and cast out demons. The judgment made no mention of Wei’s apocalyptic prediction in 2011. Chen was accused of printing 2,000 leaflets to spread claims that he possessed healing powers and had successfully cured more than 500 patients. Chen is believed to have been released from prison on December 10, 2017, assuming that he did not receive either sentence reduction or sentence extension. 

Dui Hua has been unable to find additional information about the House of Joseph beyond what is stated in the 2020 indictment and the two aforementioned court judgments. China’s Anti-Cult Association, which disseminates propaganda about the harmful nature of evil cults, is not known to have published a single article about the church. The House of Joseph has officially been designated as harmful on the grounds that it is both fraudulent and superstitious. However, as with many of the non-violent unorthodox religious groups in China, it is unclear if this opposition to the group is meant to protect the Chinese people from harmful superstition, or if it is another way to protect the Chinese government from a grassroots group with organizational capacity. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

APEC Summit Highlights Need for Stable Relations

An APEC banner promoting the San Francisco summit. Image credit: APEC press kit 

When US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco this week, they will have lots to talk about. 

As at every meeting between Chinese and US leaders in recent years, Taiwan tops the agenda. Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East will not be far behind.  

China has objected to the sale of weapons to Taiwan – a recent headline in a BBC story read “The US is quietly arming Taiwan to the teeth” – as well as multiple visits to the island by US officials touched off by then-Speaker Pelosi’s August 2022 visit. There have been numerous close encounters between US and Chinese warplanes and naval vessels in the South China and East China Seas in recent months. 

Issues relating to trade – market access, intellectual property protection, export and import restrictions imposed by both countries on products ranging from semiconductors to rare earths – will come up as will narcotics, especially the trafficking of deadly fentanyl. China’s anti-espionage law is causing considerable disquiet in the foreign business community in China. 

The United States wants to talk about the situations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, but China does not. The United States considers Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang legitimate topics for discussion, but China will push back, stating that what goes on in those three places are China’s internal affairs and as such are none of the United States’ business. 

Human Rights 

Human rights will come up, though they are likely not high on the agenda. Here too the presidents have plenty to discuss. 

The Moscone Center, where APEC events will be held. Image credit: Sergiy Galyonkin / CC BY-SA 2.0 

Dui Hua estimates that there are around 200 Americans undergoing coercive measures in China, but the State Department refuses to release the actual number or even an estimate. The US State Department considers three Americans – Mark Swidan, Pastor David Lin, and Li Kai, all businessmen – to be “unjustly imprisoned” in China. 

The meeting between Biden and Xi will take place 11 years after Mark Swidan was detained in Guangdong Province. He has been sentenced to death with two-year reprieve. Multiple senators and representatives have called for his release. If Mark Swidan is released on medical parole and allowed to return to his mother in Texas, this will be viewed positively by the American people. 

The Chinese government also believes that Chinese citizens have been persecuted in the United States, but it has not publicly released their names. 

In addition to citizens thought by the Department of State to be unjustly detained, there is the nettlesome problem of exit bans. Dui Hua estimates there are more than 20 Americans under exit bans, including businessman Henry Cai, who has been forbidden to leave China for nearly seven years. 

The US government raises the names of relatives of US citizens who have been imprisoned in China, including Uyghurs. High priorities are Dr. Gulshan Abbas, Professor Rahile Dawut. and entrepreneur Ekpar Asat. 

On September 24, 2015, President Xi and then-Vice President Joe Biden stand during the US national anthem on Xi’s state visit. Image credit: Airman 1st Class Philip Bryant / US Air Force photo  

While the fate of prisoners is high on the list of human rights issues, it is also possible that the two leaders will talk about areas where the two countries can cooperate. These include the rights of juveniles, women in prison, and the disabled. Dui Hua has worked closely with China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) on juvenile justice reform and the rights of incarcerated women and girls in both countries. The foundation has partnered with the SPC on nine programs in this area since 2008, most recently in April 2023. In the past the United States and China have held a dialogue on the rights of the disabled. These programs have made a difference for those at risk in both countries. 

Number of Dialogues Declines Sharply 

When President Trump took office there were more than 100 dialogues between the United States and China covering a wide range of subjects. Now only a handful remain, including the dialogue on consular affairs where the fates of detained citizens are raised.  

The last human rights dialogue between China and the United States took place in 2016. The dialogue has been suspended since. Meanwhile, China is less interested in holding human rights dialogues with Western countries. There were once as many 10 such dialogues, and many consultations. Now they are few and far between. Instead, China is focused on dialogues and consultations with like-minded countries like Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Several such events have taken place in 2023. 

Years ago, Dui Hua executive director John Kamm was told by a Chinese official that “When relations are good, your work benefits. When relations are bad, your work suffers.” This is as true today as it was those years ago. 

At APEC2022, Thailand passes the baton—a bamboo basket decorated in three colors symbolizing the values of openness, connection, and balance—to the United States as the next host of APEC2023. Image credit: APEC Thailand X account 

The drop in the number of dialogues between China and the United States has fueled a lack of trust between the two countries, and contributed to a situation where leaders are forced to discuss a long list of issues, some of which are complicated and contentious. 

It is quite possible that a result of APEC summit will be the resumption of suspended dialogues between the United States and China, including the human rights dialogue. If the rights dialogue is resumed, preparations need to begin as soon as possible, including agreement on guidelines. Washington is expected to insist on the right to submit prisoner lists and get responses in return. Hopefully Beijing will agree. 

Monday, October 23, 2023

Turning over a New Leaf: Juvenile Offenders Benefit from Reform

The delegation from China's Supreme People's Court visiting the Juvenile Court of the City and County of San Francisco during Dui Hua’s first expert exchange in 2008. Image credit: Dui Hua 

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Dui Hua’s first expert exchange with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) on juvenile justice, an area of concern around the globe. Beginning in 2008, Dui Hua has hosted US-China expert exchanges related to juvenile justice, women in prison, girls in conflict with the law, and child welfare. In April 2023, Dui Hua hosted “Topics in Juvenile Justice Reform: A Sino-American Exchange,” the ninth exchange involving the SPC. These exchanges address one of the few areas of human rights issues where the United States and China still engage in dialogue, in this case a dialogue that contributes to justice system reform.

Lower Convictions for Juveniles 

Statistics released by the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) in 2022 reveal a continuous drop in juvenile convictions, falling by more than 50 percent since 2013. The statistics also show a sharp uptick in the number of juveniles given non-arrest and non-prosecution decisions, as well as an increase in the number of juvenile records sealed. This progress in restorative justice for juveniles has occurred in the decade since China added a new section to the Criminal Procedure Law that incorporated provisions for conditional non-prosecution, record sealing, and more non-custodial measures – topics that were discussed during Dui Hua’s US-China expert exchanges.

Table 1. Total Convictions & Juvenile Convictions

Source: National Court Judicial Statistics Bulletin 2002-2022

In 2022, the number of juvenile convictions reached a record low, with only 27,757 juveniles tried nationwide. The percentage of juvenile convictions reached its peak at 9.79 percent in 2005 and remained at around 9 percent through 2008. This surge alarmed the Chinese government, and calls for juvenile justice reform increased. In 2007, senior Chinese prosecutor Dan Wei told Dui Hua executive director John Kamm that reforming the juvenile justice system had become a priority for senior leaders. The exchanges kicked off with an invitation to the SPC to study juvenile justice in the United States.

Following the first exchange, juvenile convictions continued to decrease year-by-year. Convictions fell below 5 percent for the first time in 2013, after the revised Criminal Procedure Law came into force and codified the principle of prioritizing education over punishment. Over the last decade, the number of juvenile convictions decreased by more than 50 percent from 63,782 in 2012 to 27,757 in 2022.

Of those 27,757 juveniles, 2,063 were girls. The number of convicted girls increased from 1,570 in 2016 to 3,321 in 2019 but dropped below 2,500 in 2020 and further to 2,000 in 2022. Despite this decrease, the number of girls convicted as a percentage of juvenile convictions has remained above 7 percent since 2019, up from 3.58 percent in 2013.

Table 2. Total, Juvenile & Girl Convictions

Source: National Court Judicial Statistics Bulletin 2002-2022

Collective Efforts

Besides fewer juvenile convictions, the SPP works in tandem with the SPC to incorporate restorative practices into its operations by approving fewer juvenile arrests and prosecutions. In 2022, prosecutors accepted and examined arrests for 49,070 minors, a drop from 55,379 in 2021. It is a sizable increase from 2020’s figure of 37,681. The approval rate for arrests of juvenile suspects in 2022 reached a record low of 31.5 percent. Of those, prosecutors approved arrests of about 15,000 minors while disapproving arrests of 34,000. The disapproval rate rose incrementally every year from 26.7 percent in 2014 to 39.1 percent in 2020. This rate exceeded 50 percent for the first time in 2021 and reached another peak of 68.5 percent in 2022.

In the first six months of 2023, prosecutors disapproved the arrests of 20,000 juveniles. The disapproval is 67.9 percent, on par with the 2022 level.

Table 3. Juvenile Arrests Disapproved

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

The prosecution rate for juvenile suspects in 2022 was 47.6 percent. The number of juveniles accepted and examined for prosecution decreased year-by-year from 77,405 in 2014 to 58,307 in 2018. In 2022, the number rose back to 78,467, exceeding the 2014 prosecution rate. Despite the increase, a growing number of juvenile delinquents have been given non-prosecution over the years. In 2022, prosecutors approved the prosecution of 28,000 juveniles and disapproved 41,000 prosecutions. The disapproval rate reached a record high of 59.9 percent, up from 10.3 percent in 2013. In just one year, the number of juveniles given non-prosecution nearly doubled from 22,585 in 2021 to 41,000 in 2022.

The non-prosecution rate in the first six months of 2023 was 56.7 percent, with a total of 18,000 juveniles given non-prosecution.

 Table 4. Juvenile Prosecutions Disapproved

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

Of particular significance is the wider use of conditional non-prosecution, known in the United States as diversion. In 2022, 26,161 juvenile cases were diverted, and the application rate of diversion rose year-to-year from 20.8 percent in 2020 to 29.6 percent in 2021, and to 36.1 percent in 2022. In 2013, diversion was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law. Since 2014, the number of juveniles offered conditional non-prosecution increased eightfold.

Table 5. Juvenile Delinquents Given Conditional Non-Prosecution

Source: White Paper on Prosecutorial Practice for Minors 2014-2022

Sealing Records

Record sealing was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Law in 2013, and prior to that it was a major topic of discussion during the expert exchanges hosted by Dui Hua. Dui Hua was assisted in preparing and conducting the exchanges by Judge Leonard Edwards of Santa Clara County, California. Judge Edwards (retired) is a recognized expert in juvenile justice in general and the sealing of juvenile records in particular.

In China, the practice of sealing juvenile records mandates that a juvenile offender’s records be sealed after they successfully complete the probation period called for by conditional non-prosecution orders issued by the procuratorate, provided that the juvenile observes the conditions of non-prosecution and does not commit new crimes. The SPP has disclosed nationwide figures on how this restorative measure has been implemented. A total of 92,694 juveniles had their records sealed from 2020-2022. In 2022, 33,021 juvenile records were sealed, an increase from 28,163 in 2020 and 31,510 in 2021. In May 2022, the SPC, SPP and Ministry of Public Security promulgated Implementation Measures for Sealing Juvenile Criminal Records, which provides detailed standards and operational procedures for sealing juvenile criminal records.

The drop in juvenile arrests, prosecutions, and convictions in 2022 signals a more progressive approach to juvenile justice. Although public sentiment continues to support more punitive approaches such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12 in 2020, the Chinese government increasingly emphasizes rehabilitation and education as the first response to juvenile offenders. The Law on Protection of Minors, revised in 2020, refined the family guardianship system by improving guardianship measures, establishing a mandatory reporting system, and creating an information inquiry system for offenders. The law also provided more guidance on prevention and response measures for internet addiction, campus bullying, new offenses, and parental legal obligations. In the same year, the revised Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Law focused on prevention rather than punitive measures by stressing education, mental health, reduction of bullying, and multi-institutional collaboration to reduce juvenile delinquency.

Building Safer Systems for All

A notable omission of both laws is that they do not address gender-specific needs. It is increasingly recognized that rehabilitating girl offenders requires different approaches than those applied to boys. To raise awareness of the need for gender-specific treatment, Dui Hua formally expanded its mission in 2014 to include women and girls in conflict with the law. Later that year, Dui Hua co-hosted an international symposium on women in prison, facilitating discussions and capacity building on the Bangkok Rules, a set of regulations that provide guidance for policy makers, legislators, sentencing authorities and prison staff to meet the specific needs of women detainees and to reduce overall female imprisonment. As part of this campaign, with permission from Penal Reform International, Dui Hua released a Chinese translation of "Neglected needs: girls in the criminal justice system in 2018." The 12-webinar International Symposium on Girls in Conflict with the Law that took place from October 2020 to March 2021, continued this campaign in an international context with input from the SPC.

However, many countries – including both the United States and China – continue to use policies that are inadequate to address the unique needs of girls in conflict with the law. Both the Law on Protection of Minors and the revised Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Law made significant strides in improving protections for minors, but the lack of gender-specific measures needs to be addressed in the future. The drop in convictions and the rise of diversionary measures reflect the great progress made in these protections, but it is important that girls are not left behind as China’s juvenile justice system continues to reform.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

China’s 2022 Acquittal Rate Lowest in Two Decades

A 2021 trial for a murder case, which was livestreamed on China Court Trial Online. Image credit: Kaifeng Intermediate People's Court, Henan Province  

Acquittal rates in China have always been low, but in 2022 the number decreased to a record low. According to the most recent China Law Yearbook, an annual official compendium released in 2023 that covers 2022, only 631 individuals (0.044 percent of the 1,431,585 defendants with effective judgments) were found not guilty by criminal courts in 2022. 

The conviction rate in 2022 was 99.95 percent, a record high according to statistics in the China Law Yearbook. The acquittal rates dropped every year in the decade after 2003. The most dramatic decrease happened in 2005, when the 0.256 percent acquittal rate was less than half of 2003’s already low 0.647 percent. In 2010, the acquittal rate fell below 0.1 percent for the first time and has never returned above this level. 

Table 1.

Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023

When Xi Jinping began his first term as Chinese president in 2013, many legal practitioners expressed optimism that acquittal rates would approach more “normal” levels as a result of proposed legal reforms aimed to strengthen procedural justice. Although what constitutes a “normal” acquittal level is not clearly defined, a five percent rate is often cited when the topic is discussed in China. Chinese legal authorities also overturned a series of high-profile convictions and took steps to strengthen measures to exclude confessions extracted through torture and other illegal evidence.  

For 2013, the acquittal rate rose briefly for the first time since 2003, growing annually from six acquittals per 10,000 adjudications to seven. The rates remained steady, climbing at a slow pace until 2018 when they dropped again to 0.057 percent, a 37 percent decrease compared to the previous year.  

Table 2.

Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023

Xi has spearheaded an effort to hold judges, prosecutors, and police officers accountable for wrongful convictions in cases that have since been retried. In 2021, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate investigated all of the 246 criminal cases that were re-tried and corrected since 2018 and found that in 22 of these cases, people had been wrongly jailed for more than 10 years. More than 500 prosecutors were punished, some of whom had already retired.  

The acquittal rate saw a brief rise to 0.084 percent in 2019. However, this reversal was short-lived. In the three years that followed, the rates have again dropped, to 0.068 percent in 2020, 0.052 percent in 2021, and then to 0.044 percent in 2022.  

Acquittals are even rarer in trials of endangering state security (ESS) crimes, which include subversion, inciting subversion, splittism, inciting splittism, obtaining or providing state secrets, and espionage.  From 2013-2016, only ten people were acquitted, according to statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court. The names and other details of these ten individuals are not known. Dui Hua is not aware of any acquittals for ESS crimes after 2016.

Table 3. ESS acquittals (effective judgments), 2013-2016

Year No. of Acquittals of ESS Crimes
2013 2
2014 2
2015 0
2016 6
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics, Criminal Trials Vol. 6, 2013-2016

In a Human Rights Journal published in 2015, Dui Hua reported that the number of not-guilty judgments is influenced by efforts to avoid the payment of state compensation, marginalize defense attorneys, restrict judicial independence, and maintain stability. Some of these issues have continued, according to a 2022 legal journal re-posted by Shanghquan Law Firm. Additionally, judges realize that acquittals can adversely impact professional assessments for prosecutors because successful convictions are seen as a means for career advancement. There remains an unspoken rule that prosecutors can withdraw indictments and collaborate with judges to eliminate the possibility of non-guilty judgments or to hand out lighter punishments in cases where evidence against the accused is weak. 

One of the fundamental purposes of a criminal justice system is to protect innocent people from being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Despite efforts to overturn high-profile wrongful convictions, these instances likely represent a fraction of cases where defendants are wrongly charged with crimes. The persistently low acquittal rates over the years raise questions about how many more people are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. A court which exercises its authority to acquit in accordance with the law ensures systemic justice and procedural fairness; it is fundamentally different from relying on political whims to right past wrongs. As Xi rejects the notion of judicial independence, continues his crackdown on defense lawyers, and places state security and stability maintenance above all else, there is little in place to stop the near-guaranteed high conviction rate from continuing for the foreseeable future.  

Download: China Acquittals, 2003-2022 (Excel). Source: China Law Yearbook, compiled by Dui Hua.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Public Sentencing Rallies during the Pandemic

Three Chinese nationals were executed in a public sentencing rally in Wa State, a Chinese-speaking region in Northern Myanmar on May 14, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 

In May 2020, a video clip featuring the execution of three men in a public sentencing rally in Wa State of Myanmar became a trending topic on domestic social media. The three executed men were Chinese nationals who had reportedly robbed a gold shop and murdered the owner. While calling on the public to obey laws and customs overseas, Chinese news media sources appear to have expressed shock that the shaming ritual was replicated in Myanmar even though it has “long vanished in China.” 

Historically, public sentencing rallies were widely used in and outside China to crush political opponents and consolidate the power of the ruling class. In the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, mass rallies served to educate the public about the errors of class enemies, including Kuomintang members and landlords. 

While there are signs that these rallies have fallen into disuse in recent years, they continue to take place in some localities where they target drug offenders and members of organized crime. In these rallies, which continue to serve as propaganda to “frighten criminals, educate people, and maintain social stability,” judges hand out mass sentencing and mete out harsh punishments, including death sentences. Because of the nationwide lockdowns and stringent social distancing measures accompanying China’s zero-COVID policy in the two full years since 2020, the rallies that are typically held in large public venues like plazas, stadiums, and auditoriums in front of crowds numbering in the thousands seemingly vanished from public sight. 

However, Chinese government sources continued to report on small rallies that have been convened. Many of these rallies appeared no different from regular court trials when they were held indoors or virtually with no or limited public attendance. Regardless of the forms and scale, Chinese courts continue to retain the campaign-style rallies which legal experts have decried for years, arguing that the rallies disregard the presumption of innocence and mainly serve to shame prisoners. 

Indoor & Virtual Rallies 

A group of 14 drug traffickers were sentenced in what a Shenzhen court called a “public sentencing rally” on June 23, 2020. Image credit: Shenzhen News Network website 

Public sentencing rallies have long been integral to showcase the government’s efforts to combat drug crimes on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking, observed annually on June 26. The date is of special significance in China as it serves to commemorate Lin Zexu, officially lauded as an anti-opium hero for dismantling the opium trade in Guangdong before the First Opium War in 1839

China continued to feature a series of high-profile public sentencing rallies on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking amid the outbreak of the pandemic. In Shenzhen, a rally was held on June 23, 2020 to announce the death sentences of two traffickers of methamphetamine. The sentences had previously been determined by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court and subsequently approved by the Supreme People’s Court. On the same day, the intermediate court also publicly sentenced ten people involved in a drug case. 

Unlike a widely reported rally in Lufeng County, Guangdong, where two courts sentenced 10 criminals to death in front of tens of thousands of people including children on December 16, 2017, the 2020 Shenzhen rally was not attended by any public spectators due to the stringent social distancing measures and anti-pandemic curbs at the time. The rally took place instead in a courtroom where only a judge and a clerk could be seen, according to an online video published on the Shenzhen News Network website. None of the defendants appeared in front of the judge to receive judgments. They were seen in a synchronous video in Shenzhen No.2 Detention Center wearing face masks, handcuffed, and escorted by security guards while the judge announced the death sentences. 

The duo was executed on the same day immediately after the rally ended. In the same rally, the judge announced that another drug trafficker was sentenced to life imprisonment and that ten other defendants were convicted of manufacturing, selling and transporting drugs, and illegal possession of firearms. 

Courts outside of Guangdong have also been eager to convene sentencing rallies in campaigns against drug abuse on or before the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In 2021, the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court of Liaoning Province held a rally in a courtroom where 13 handcuffed drug offenders stood in front of the judge in a courtroom to receive prison sentences ranging from nine years’ imprisonment to death with a two-year reprieve. A post published on the Liaoning High Court website claimed that the rally, which was attended by less than two dozen spectators, manifested “a high-pressure crackdown on drug crimes, effectively suppressed the arrogance of drug criminals, and contributed to the construction of a harmonious and safe Dandong.” 

Four defendants received judgments in a public sentencing rally convened by the Pingnan County People’s Court of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region as part of the campaign to combat environmental pollution. Photo image: Pingnan County People’s Court website 

It must be noted that sentencing rallies are not exclusively used against drug traffickers. In May 2021, a local court in Guangxi convened a virtual rally for four people convicted of illegally disposing of hazardous substances. As with the 2020 Shenzhen rally, the defendants received their judgments via video while handcuffed in a detention center. This rally was held as part of the open day organized by the Pingnan County People’s Court to educate the public about environmental protection. It was sparsely attended by only 12 people from the local community, according to information provided by the court website. 

200-Spectator Rally in Yancheng, Jiangsu 

Twenty-two criminal suspects were hauled into a sentencing rally attended by over 200 people in Yancheng, Jiangsu on October 28, 2020. Image credit: China Central Television 

Despite the onerous zero-COVID measures that were in full swing in 2020, public attendees were occasionally allowed to take part in sentencing rallies of a smaller scale. The Yancheng Intermediate People’s Court in Jiangsu Province invited over 200 people from the National People’s Congress, members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, journalists, village cadres, and resident representatives to the rally in Longgang Township on December 28, 2020. The 22 defendants manufactured banned substances including hydroxylamine hydrochloride, chlorophenyl, hydrochloric acid, and toluene. They could be seen wearing white hazmat suits with face masks while receiving judgments in front of the judge and the spectators. 

Of the 22 defendants, three were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Each of them was accused of selling methamphetamine weighing 4,000 to 6,000 grams (about 8.82 to 13.23 pounds). The other defendants received prison sentences from 22 months to 11 years for manufacturing hydroxylamine hydrochloride totaling 1,106 grams (about 2.44 pounds).  

Student Spectators in Hainan 

(Top to bottom) Dozens of Hainan school students, all seen wearing uniforms and face masks, sat in rows in a public sentencing rally held at the Danzhou District People’s Court on April 24, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 
As public sentencing rallies serve as sites of expressive punishment, teenage students are also required to attend such events as part of their legal education (法制教育). Images published by the Hainan court website show dozens of students in school uniforms sitting in rows to watch nine drug defendants receive prison sentences from ten months to 15 years’ imprisonment on April 24, 2020. The defendants were accused of selling large quantities of ecstasy and other counterfeit drugs. 

It was not the first time young students were required to watch public sentencing rallies. In June 2018, two drug dealers received death sentences in Haikou in front of hundreds of people, many of whom were students wearing school uniforms. The duo was executed following the rally. The executions took place elsewhere at a designated venue, so the students did not witness the actual executions.  

Outdoor Rally in Guangxi against Gangland Crimes 

Traditional sentencing rallies held in large outdoor public spaces did not entirely vanish during the pandemic. On June 28, 2020, an outdoor rally was held in Donglan County, Guangxi, to publicly arrest and sentence gangland criminals. The rally was not held in a courtroom but in a sports stadium. Available sources did not state how many spectators attended, but the image below shows rows of police officers alongside dozens of public spectators. At the back of the crowds, criminal suspects and defendants stood in a row in front of the judge’s podium. They could be seen wearing the typical white hazmat protective suits and facing the group of public spectators. 

An outdoor rally in Donglan County, Guangxi, on June 28, 2020, during which alleged criminals were publicly arrested and sentenced. Image credit: Wei Hao / Weixin 

Efforts to ban public executions 

China’s decision to ban public executions dates back to 1979, while “perp walks” for sex workers were banned more recently in 2010. The Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice jointly issued notices in 1984 and 1986 prohibiting public parades before executions, saying that such events provided opportunities for overseas counterrevolutionary propaganda to “slander” China. 

Public executions (as well as the broader use of capital punishment) were thought to be one of many human rights-related objections to China’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a point Dui Hua executive director John Kamm recalled in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed. In the run-up to the opening of the Games, another joint opinion was issued in March 2007 to prohibit public parades before executions as well as to enforce the rights of the executed, including last visitation rights for the family. Criminal Procedure Law also stipulates that while the public should be notified of executions, the execution itself should not be held in public. 

Going Forward 

Over the years, legal experts have spoken out against public arrests and sentencings, branding them “campaign-style justice” that emphasize swift and severe punishment. However, the general public tends to empathize with the need to deter crimes by publicly shaming the offenders. In its seventh annual report, the Collaborative Innovation Center of Judicial Civilization released its latest data collected over 24,354 surveys across 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. It finds that over 62.5 percent of respondents expressed support for public arrest and sentencing rallies in 2018. The following year, the approval rate declined to 55.5 percent but bounced back to 61.3 percent in 2020-2021. Of them, 19.1 percent in 2020-2021 expressed strong support for retaining the practice, lower than 23.7 percent in 2018 but higher than the 15.8 percent in 2019. 

A public trial is intended to boost transparency by informing the public about who the accusers are, the nature of the charges, and the evidence against the accused. It is fundamentally different from a public sentencing rally — a form of show trial where the judgment and sentence of a criminal case already determined in court is publicly announced in front of crowds of public spectators. Such rallies serve a political agenda to demonstrate the government’s determination to fight crimes, blame and shame criminals, and educate the public about their alleged crimes. In response to a controversial sentencing rally held in Langzhong, Sichuan, in 2016, Professor Yu Qilin of China University of Political Science and Law remarked that trial fairness and justice is maintained through procedure transparency in the courtroom, not public spectacle.

The use of public sentencing rallies to shame the accused appears to be on a downward trend in recent years thanks to China's strict adherence to the hard-line zero-COVID policy. A decade ago, people accused of endangering state security, terrorism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, as well as well as “wild imams” who preached illegally in the restive region, were condemned in front of crowds of thousands. At the very least, the rallies discussed in this post were downsized and used in a narrower scope to target drug traffickers and members of organized crime. Additionally, individuals shamed in the rallies were no longer seen wearing confessional placards or driven through the streets in open trucks.  
The practice of public shaming never really vanished even when strict pandemic measures were in force. On December 28, 2021, four men accused of smuggling people across an international border were publicly shamed in Guangxi. They were flanked by police officers and paraded through the streets of Jingxi City. Although authorities claimed that the parade served as a warning of what could happen if people violated the pandemic curbs, Beijing News editorial remarked that “the measure seriously violates the spirit of the rule of law and cannot be allowed to happen again.” With the lifting of pandemic curbs following nationwide protests in late 2022, it remains to be seen whether large-scale sentencing rallies will reemerge.