Throughout China, people are busily preparing for the Lunar New Year (or Spring Festival). A week-long national holiday commences on Saturday, February 13, and millions of Chinese are returning home to spend the vacation with their families. Traditionally, public holidays in China are also busy periods for the administration of justice, with court actions ranging from the benevolent—widespread clemency shown to prisoners prior to Spring Festival or National Day in October—to the most punitive: there tends to be an increase in executions just before these very same events.
This year, Chinese courts appear to be using the weeks leading up to Spring Festival to do some “spring cleaning,” making an extra effort to clear their dockets before the holiday, particularly for some major cases involving “endangering state security” (ESS) crimes.
On Monday in Chengdu, Sichuan, the provincial court rejected the appeal of veteran rights activist Huang Qi (黃琦), who was sentenced to three years last November for “illegal possession of state secrets.” Also in Chengdu, environmental activist Tan Zuoren (谭作人), who has been waiting for the court’s decision since his trial for “inciting subversion” opened last August, was sentenced on Tuesday to five years in prison in connection with items he wrote to commemorate the June Fourth protest in Beijing (though Tan’s activism after the Sichuan earthquake may well have led to his arrest). On Wednesday, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court sentenced 20-year-old Xue Mingkai (薛明凯) to 18 months for subversion after he joined the outlawed “China Democracy Party.” And on Thursday, the Beijing Higher People’s Court rejected the appeal of Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), sentenced to 11 years on Christmas Day on charges of inciting subversion stemming from a series of essays critical of Chinese leadership and his role in drafting “Charter 08.”
The “spring cleaning” has not been limited to high-profile ESS trials. In recent weeks, there has been a significant increase in the number of executions reported in the Chinese press. During the two-week period from January 23 to February 5, Dui Hua researchers reviewed official Chinese media reports documenting the execution of at least 61 individuals. This is more than double the average, two-week rate of execution reported in the Chinese media over the last three months.
Of course, many executions in China are not reported, and it is problematic to rely solely on media accounts to estimate the number of executions. Dui Hua bases its estimates in part on sources within the Chinese government who take into account executions which are not publicized. (For example, Dui Hua estimated that about 6,000 executions took place in China in 2007; by contrast, Amnesty International’s estimate, based on confirmed reports, released a figure of at least 470 for that year.) Under these circumstances, any change in the frequency or volume of execution reports is significant.
To those who regularly follow criminal justice in China, it is tempting to ascribe a deep political explanation to sharp changes in the rate and severity of punishment. One might look at this string of convictions and flurry of executions as evidence of a sudden hardening against perceived threats to stability in China. But considering the season, another explanation comes to mind: perhaps judges and prosecutors—like everyone else in China preparing for the New Year—want to settle accounts and clear away unpleasant business before going on vacation.