Monday, July 18, 2011

Of Spies and Dissidents

Could it be that individuals convicted of espionage have higher rates of clemency than people convicted of non-violent speech and association?

A recent communication from a Chinese government source indicates that the alleged leader of a group of British spies operating in Hong Kong in the 1990s, Wei Pingyuan (魏平原), has had his life sentence commuted and prison sentence reduced. After two sentence reductions totaling two-and-a-half years, he is now due for release on February 20, 2025.

Wei worked on Taiwan affairs for Xinhua in the 1990s before resigning and becoming a naturalized Briton. He was detained while on a business trip to Guangdong Province in late 2003. At a closed trial in Guangzhou in November 2004, Wei was convicted of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from British intelligence for confidential communications between Chinese officials in Beijing and Hong Kong.

One of the most senior Chinese officials based in Hong Kong before the territory’s reversion to China in 1997, Cai Xiaohong (蔡小洪), was convicted along with Wei and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Cai Xiaohong is the former secretary general of China’s Central Liaison Office and the son of former Justice Minister Cai Cheng (蔡诚). Cai Xiaohong received a 20-month sentence reduction in 2007 and was under consideration for medical parole when he was transferred to a Beijing prison in early 2009 to be closer to his ailing father. (On September 2, 2009, at the age of 82, Cai Cheng died proclaiming his son’s innocence.)

Wei allegedly recruited Cai Xiaohong, leading to his harsher sentence. Sources also claim that he refused to cooperate with interrogators, but recent acts of clemency may indicate that he has since acknowledged the court’s verdict.

Clemency for Guangdong, Fujian Agents

Wei Pingyuan’s treatment is among the latest examples of clemency granted by Guangdong courts to individuals convicted of espionage and trafficking in state secrets. Chen Yulin (陈瑜琳), another British citizen and former Xinhua Foreign Affairs Department employee, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2004. His sentence was commuted to a fixed term in August 2007 and reduced by 18 months in June 2009. Sun Yuren (孙郁人), detained on suspicion of spying for Taiwan, was released from Guangdong’s Meizhou Prison on January 4, 2011. After three reductions, Sun served about two thirds of his initial 10-year sentence. High-profile sentence reductions for alleged American spy David Dong Wei and recently released Hong Kong scholar Xu Zerong also occurred in 2010 and 2011.

In a 2005 response to a list of cases of concern submitted by Dui Hua, 17 of 28 endangering state security (ESS) prisoners who received clemency were convicted of espionage or providing intelligence outside of the country. A majority of these prisoners were from Fujian Province. Follow-up communication in late 2010 revealed that several of these prisoners have received additional sentence reductions, including six given sentences of seven years or more for spying for Taiwan.

Among the most important acts of clemency for a state secrets trafficker in recent years is the early release of Jin Zhangqin (金章嵚). After retiring as an archivist for the Fujian provincial government, Jin served as a book agent for the University Services Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Jin was detained on suspicion of trafficking state secrets in May 2003 and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and three years’ deprivation of political rights in January 2004. He was released early in September 2010 after a 22-month sentence reduction for good behavior in 2007 and a one-year sentence reduction in 2010.

Soft on “Spies,” Tough on Dissidents

The number of sentence reductions for prisoners convicted of espionage and supplying foreign entities with state secrets contrasts sharply with that of prisoners convicted of speech and association offenses (subversion, splittism, and their incitement). A review of records in Dui Hua’s prisoner database—which catalogues about 24,000 cases—and available official statistics suggests that, in recent years, the majority of ESS arrests and trials have been for speech and association offenses. Despite making up the bulk of known ESS cases, speech and association prisoners are rarely granted clemency. There has not been a single known act of clemency for this group of prisoners since September 2009, when Jiangsu-based Internet essayist and political organizer Huang Jinqiu (黄金秋) and Sichuan labor activist Wang Sen (王森) were given 23-month and 10-month reductions, respectively.

Dui Hua research indicates that prisoners convicted of ESS have lower rates of sentence reduction and parole than the general prison population, for which the rate is about 30 percent. Within the ESS category, it seems that clemency is more common for individuals convicted of espionage—a crime most countries consider the greatest threat to national security—than for those convicted of non-violent speech and association. A number of factors may be involved here: discrepancies in information disclosure, differences in average lengths of sentences, official clout, admission of guilt, or individual circumstances.

What may also be at play is systemic prejudice. One official with whom Dui Hua has worked for many years acknowledged Dui Hua’s concern that “spies” had better access to clemency than dissidents by noting that only prisoners considered not to be a “threat to society” are eligible for parole. He stated that once out of jail spies can’t go on spying, while dissidents can continue stirring dissent. One wonders if that means that, for the sake of stability, citizens are better off selling out their country than trying to change it.