Thursday, January 20, 2011

Xinjiang Court Offers First Indicator of State Security Stats for 2010

One of the ways we gauge the human rights situation in China is to look at the numbers of arrests and prosecutions for “endangering state security” (ESS) during the previous year. To this end, we pay close attention to statistics typically included by the heads of the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March. Close analysis of these figures over many years give us a perspective from which we can identify trends and make judgments about whether things are getting more or less restrictive in China.

An early indication of which direction those trends might be heading comes from statements made by the president of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Higher People’s Court, Rozi Ismail. According to the Xinhua News Agency, on January 16 Mr. Ismail announced that courts in the XUAR concluded 376 trials for ESS in 2010. This reflects a 16 percent drop compared to the 437 cases concluded in 2009 but remains more than 30 percent above the number reported in 2008. It is assumed that a crackdown against “splittism” following the deadly riots in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, is primarily responsible for the increase in ESS cases over the past two years.

In its coverage of the speech, the Reuters news agency erroneously announced that 376 defendants had been tried on ESS charges in 2010. In fact, the number of defendants is likely to be much higher. Court figures from the XUAR in the period from 1998 to 2003 show that there were more than three defendants, on average, in ESS cases. So, it is very likely that XUAR courts tried more than 1,000 defendants for ESS in 2010—and it is safe to conclude that the overwhelming majority were convicted.

Since the XUAR has historically accounted for around half of all ESS trials nationwide, the drop reported last weekend suggests that we can expect that 2010 continued to show a modest decline in the total number of ESS trials in China after reaching historic highs in 2008. To get a sense of just how much of a decline, though, we shall have to await the release of fuller statistics in March.