Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Feng Zhiming’s Arrest Is Not Enough to Prevent Injustice

Feng Zhiming, lead investigator in the 1996 case against Huugjilt, is under investigation for dereliction of duty. Image credit: CCTV

The Chinese Communist Party’s Fourth Plenum that took place in October was notable for its emphasis on promoting “rule of law” and laying out guiding principles for further reform of the country’s legal system. Events in recent weeks have pushed one subject discussed at the Fourth Plenum into the spotlight: namely, the desire to implement more stringent systems of personal accountability for law-enforcement personnel to help stem the problem of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice.

The face that has lately come to exemplify China’s resolve to address the problem is that of Huugjilt, who as an 18-year-old young man from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, was executed back in 1996 for a rape and homicide he did not commit. Huugjilt became a suspect after he and a friend told police of their discovery of a woman’s dead body in a public toilet. He was brought to justice swiftly on the basis of an alleged confession, with just over two months elapsing between his arrest and eventual execution by gunshot.

In 2005, however, a serial murderer named Zhao Zhiheng confessed to a string of murders, including the one for which Huugjilt had been convicted. When Zhao’s case went to trial the following year, however, he was not charged for that particular murder and the conviction against Huugjilt was left to stand. Fearing that local authorities were trying to cover up evidence of a miscarriage of justice, a Xinhua News Service reporter named Tang Ji wrote up the first of several internal reports on the case intended for the eyes of central authorities.

The following year, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Politico-Legal Committee conducted a review of the case that determined Huugjilt had been wrongly convicted. Over the years that followed, central and regional authorities issued instructions for the case to be reopened, but court officials repeatedly demurred and no one was held responsible for this tragic miscarriage of justice. In fact, as a recent graphic that circulated online makes clear, the main people responsible for seeing Huugjilt’s case through the system went on to receive promotions and commendations.

That nine-year process of legal limbo came to an end abruptly last month, as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region High People’s Court held a new trial in the case that posthumously exonerated Huugjilt of all charges on December 15. Even more dramatic was the announcement days later that Feng Zhiming, the police official who had led the original criminal investigation in 1996, had been placed under arrest by the local procuratorate and was being investigated for dereliction of duty, coercing confessions through torture, and taking bribes.

A spokesperson for the Inner Mongolia High People's Court announces investigation of Feng Zhiming at a December press conference. Image credit: CCTV

While many are hailing this as a victory (albeit belated) for justice, several commentators have greeted the news of Feng’s arrest with a more cautious eye. At issue is how far the accountability drive will go in holding all those responsible for miscarriages of justice like this and whether it will be carried out in ways that promote positive systemic change.

In a recent commentary in The Beijing Times, a frequent legal pundit who writes under the name “Binglin” argues the need for openness and transparency in the process of holding officials accountable for wrongful convictions. For one thing, transparency will facilitate both to ensure that the process is as comprehensive and thorough as possible. Keeping the process in the public eye will also strengthen its effectiveness at molding the behavior of others within law-enforcement.

Accountability for acts carried out in individual cases is perhaps the easy part; much more difficult is to assess responsibility for the deeper institutional causes underlying wrongful convictions—such as the role that inter-institutional “coordination” plays in weakening the procedural checks that are supposed to protect suspects and defendants from miscarriages of justice. The worst outcome would be for accountability in the Huugjilt case to be merely a propaganda effort aimed at convincing the public of authorities’ sincerity at tackling the problem of wrongful convictions. Punishing Feng Zhiming for wrongdoing is only the first step. What’s even more essential is to bring an end to the ways that campaign-style “strike hard” policing and stability-first policies have shaped practices within the Chinese criminal justice system for decades.

Openness Will Encourage Birth of “Wrongful Case Responsibility-Tracing Mechanism”

The Beijing Times, 19 December 2014

When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others. Without strict assurance of open information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

The recent spate of actions taken to redress wrongful judicial decisions has caused a great deal of public excitement. Particularly after the Inner Mongolia [High People’s Court] re-tried the case against Huugjilt and pronounced him innocent, the public has been paying a great deal of attention to the pursuit of accountability in wrongful convictions. So far, the Inner Mongolia Public Security Department, High People’s Court, and Procuratorate have all publicly announced that they have launched investigations into personnel related to the Huugjilt case. The most recent news is that Hohhot Public Security Bureau Deputy Chief Feng Zhiming, who led the special investigative team in Huugjilt’s case, has now been taken into custody by the procuratorate and is under investigation for suspected criminal offenses committed while on the job.

Along the assembly line on which wrongful convictions are manufactured, those parts of the system that are intended to uphold justice frequently fail to do so. From investigative units that are eager to solve cases, to prosecutors who are supposed to screen and examine cases, and to adjudicating bodies responsible for conviction and sentencing—no matter what the reason for the failure might be, objectively speaking, none can easily evade responsibility when there is a wrongful conviction. After enduring a marathon process of petition, re-examination, and re-trial in the Huugjilt case, the swift launch of the legal accountability process is, to a certain degree, a response to the public’s demands and can mark a good beginning of the implementation of a system to trace accountability in wrongful convictions.

But there are also reasons not to be so optimistic. A special team to re-examine Huugjilt’s case was set up back in 2006, so why did it take nine years for this case to get resolved? Was there obstruction to the re-examination? Was it anything that people should be held accountable for? Was responsibility for the wrongful conviction limited to the police, prosecutors, and courts? It is crucial that any accountability system for wrongful convictions be comprehensive, open, and thorough. However, a recent media accounting of 10 wrongful convictions in recent years revealed that, apart from the Zhao Zuohai case (in which five police officers were convicted of coercing confessions through torture), in most of the other cases the decisions about accountability were not revealed to the public. In the case of the Zhejiang man and his nephew wrongly convicted of rape or the five young men from Xiaoshan wrongly convicted of fatal robberies, there were only “internal investigations into accountability,” “the details of which cannot be released.” It is worth questioning seriously just how heavy the sanctions are in such internal accountability investigations and how much they serve as warnings to others handling cases within the law-enforcement system. After all, it is not all that uncommon to see institutions respond perfunctorily to public opinion oversight through such actions as horizontal re-shuffling or even apparent demotions that are actually promotions.

More importantly, non-public and non-transparent accountability processes in response to wrongful convictions are less likely to become subject to public oversight and cause people to suspect that there may be something fishy going on. When neither information nor process is public, the mechanism for tracing past responsibility loses its most important role as a warning to others in the system, who can’t appreciate the severity of the accountability or use the result of the process to regulate their own specific case-handling behaviors. We must realize that when a system for tracing past accountability in wrongful convictions is limited to internal processes within enforcement agencies, sometimes those who ought to be held accountable are actually leading cadres within those agencies. Without strict assurance of public information and transparent procedures, it’s hard to ensure there will be no cover-ups.

At the end of the day, if you want to prevent the mechanism for tracing past accountability from becoming a sham, there needs to be open and transparent procedural mechanisms and the accountability process itself must be part of what officials are held accountable for. If the response to a wrongful conviction is limited only to payment of state compensation and those “law-enforcers” are never held accountable for causing innocent people to spend time in prison or go to their graves proclaiming their innocence, then this kind of remedy will ultimately fail to bring any improvement to the judicial environment. It will seem to people as if the state is left to foot the bill whenever law-enforcement officials make mistakes, and the gap between power and responsibility will mean that other law-enforcement personnel will learn no lessons from the process.

Accountability is a crucial part of legal justice. The decision of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress clearly called for the implementation of a lifetime responsibility and punishment mechanism for individuals who handle cases within the law-enforcement system and a system to trace accountability in cases of wrongful conviction. These systems are intended to help ensure that cases are handled in a way that can stand up to the scrutiny of both law and history. It might be worth starting with the wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice that have been uncovered in recent years to launch a process of accountability that demonstrates the same resolve and severity shown in the anti-corruption campaign and lets the mechanism for tracing past accountability come into being.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Riding the Rails: Political Investigations by China’s Railway Police

Guangzhou Railway Police patrolling station, 2011. Image credit:

China’s railway police are tasked with preventing and handling criminal activity and maintaining safety and order in train stations and on trains. They also cooperate with state security to investigate and detain criminal suspects in political cases. Railroads move people, goods, and ideas, and over the past few decades the focus of political investigations among railway police has shifted from counterrevolution to religion to mass incidents. By reviewing official archives, Dui Hua has uncovered scores of political and religious cases handled by railway police, prosecutors, and courts from 1980 to present.


“The railway bureaus must not be overlooked as an important sub-battleground [in the fight] against hostile forces.” — Liaoning Province Railway Police Records

During the 1980s, railway police across the country worked closely with state security forces to “safeguard national security, socialism, and the smooth implementation of the Four Modernizations.” Six major areas of political investigation were: (1) espionage and other counterrevolutionary cases; (2) railroad sabotage; (3) stealing state secrets and espionage at bus and train stations; (4) people potentially manipulated by enemies and suspected of counterrevolution; (5) the enemy’s situation, prevention of counterrevolutionary sabotage, and strengthening investigative services; and (6) fighting the enemy at ports and borders. [*]  

The political cases most commonly documented by railway police were counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. Official records routinely state that counterrevolutionary propaganda stirs resentment against the people’s dictatorship and tarnishes China’s international image. Whether they criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), local cadres, the abandonment of pre-reform socialism, agricultural taxes, the one-child policy, or simply presented personal grievances, “reactionary” slogans, letters, leaflets, and poems were deemed to have far-reaching, negative consequences. In train stations—high-traffic areas with thousands of idling people, propaganda has a huge potential audience.

Travelers were not the only potential recipients or disseminators of so-called counterrevolutionary rhetoric, and railway police worked to ensure that all railway employees were politically correct and loyal to the CCP. Of particular concern was Taiwanese infiltration of the railways, which were closely linked to economic development. Railway police used surveillance networks to ensure that railway employees were not affected by the “poisonous thoughts of psychological warfare,” i.e., Taiwanese propaganda in the form of radio broadcasts and “reactionary” materials making it across the strait in balloons and floating carriers. In 1983, one of six counterrevolution cases filed by railway police in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, involved a railway electrician who allegedly wrote in his notebook that he hoped Chiang Kai-shek would retake the mainland and kill a few communists. In a separate counterrevolutionary case the same year, a train station employee in Hebei’s Shanhai Pass allegedly spread rumors that “viciously attacked Deng Xiaoping.”

In the northeastern provinces, railway bureaus were more vigilant about secret agents from the Soviet Union than Taiwan. In the two years after China began research to counter Soviet espionage in 1979, Harbin railway police examined 41 suspects. Among them was Ma Wenzhong (马文忠) a Hui man originally from Gansu Province. Harbin Public Security Records state that Ma was paid by Soviet agents to collect political, military, and economic intelligence. He was detained in Mudanjiang Train Station and sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Harbin Railway Transport Intermediate People’s Court in December 1983.

1989 Protests

In 1989, one major responsibility undertaken by railway bureaus was to help contain the nationwide pro-democracy protests that first began in Beijing on April 15. On May 25, the State Council issued an emergency notice to the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Railways condemning the negative social impact and economic losses caused by students who “barged into train stations and forcefully took trains to Beijing.” All railway bureaus were urged to take concrete measures to prevent students from traveling to Beijing by train.

Railway police in Kunming, Yunnan Province, “dissuaded” 683 students from traveling north to Beijing and confiscated 558 copies of reactionary propaganda. In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, railway police tracked down a total 284 key suspects who joined the pro-democracy protests and two “ringleaders who created disturbances in Jilin Province and Nanjing” and confiscated 48 leaflets and eight notebooks with reactionary content. Elsewhere, railway police dispersed protesters laying down on tracks; removed barricades; and searched trains, guesthouses, and hotels along the railroads.

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on three individuals who were tried by railway courts for inciting demonstrators to block trains. In Shanghai, Gao Guihong (高贵鸿) and Wang Xia (王霞) were sentenced to five and four years in prison, respectively, for gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic or a public place. In Hunan, Huang Junjie (黄俊杰) was convicted of hooliganism but exempted from criminal punishment due to his advanced age by the Changsha Railway Transport Court in January 1991. Huang was 69 years old in 1989.


Despite a significant drop in the number of cases of counterrevolutionary sabotage, propaganda, and incitement, the 1990s saw a surge in “anti-socialist and anti-CCP” activities “disguised” as religious outreach. — Harbin Railway Public Security Records

On July 16, 1994, several church members staying at a guesthouse owned by the Harbin railway bureau were found to have gathered 1,000 members of New Testament Church to prepare for the “ascension to heaven.” In November 1995, the State Council labeled New Testament Church a cult. According to official records, the church aimed to “shatter the dysnomy of the Communist Party.”

Between 1995 and 1998, records from Xinjiang railway police reported crackdowns not only on “illegal mosques,” but also on Guanyin Famen; Bloody Holy Spirit; and house church gatherings in Urumqi, Turpan Korla City, and Yu’ergou Village. In 1999, Urumqi railway police intercepted 56 Falun Gong practitioners at train stations and confiscated 1,342 copies of Falun Gong propaganda and 980 copies of audio-video materials.

Cases involving secret political associations are occasionally mentioned in railway police records. In 1992, Yu Jie (于杰), an electrician at Jiamusi Train Station in Heilongjiang Province, was arrested for his involvement in the China Democracy Party. Yu joined people from Beijing and Liaoning Province in designing a new national flag and “conspiring to build an army to overthrow the CCP.” After reading Yu’s private letters, Harbin railway police concluded that Yu and others were in collusion with capitalism and “conspired” to seek help from the West.

In the south, surveillance of “reactionary” individuals and publications connected to Hong Kong continued even after the British returned the territory to China in July 1997. Guangdong railway police investigated Zhang Xuguang (张旭光), a cargo officer at Longchuan Train Station, after he accepted an invitation to meet with members of Tsung Tsin Association, a “pro-rightist” Hakka association based in Hong Kong, in September 1997. Between 1994 and 1999, the Huizhou Railway Public Security Department confiscated 1,637 copies of Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and East Week magazine, 89 copies of One Magazine, and more than 50 copies of banned political books.


Railway police often list the suppression of illegal religious activities among their top achievements. In 2010, railway police in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, tracked down 1,310 members of 48 cults and “a large number of underground religious groups” along the Xiangtang-Putian Railway. In 2012, railway police in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, confiscated more than 26,200 copies of “cult” propaganda. Some of the material discussed qigong and religious sects such as Almighty God, Zhonggong and the Amitabha Society.

Falun Gong is the religious group most frequently discussed in railway bureau records. In 2006 alone, Guangxi’s Liuzhou railway police investigated a total of 114 Falun Gong propaganda and incitement cases and confiscated 2,425 copies of illegal publications.

The PPDB has information on 18 Falun Gong practitioners who were convicted by railway courts and sentenced to up to six years’ imprisonment. At least a third of these individuals were railway bureau employees in Heilongjiang and Guangxi, while others were passengers in possession of Falun Gong publications while at train stations or traveling by train.

Amid a rising number of mass incidents nationwide, railway police constitute part of the stability-maintenance machine meant to curb potential unrest. In the wake of the deadly high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, Nanchang railway police detained Zhang Qijin (张琦金) and Lin Tao (林涛) for disseminating social media posts in an effort to organize a mass vigil outside Xiamen Train Station. The vigil aimed to further demands that authorities investigate the cause of the accident.

Xuzhou Railway Police check "important travelers" in 2011. Image credit:

Internally, railway police add names to the list of “targeted people” who should be kept under close watch and identify railway bureau employees who might “illegally petition” or protest low wages, layoffs, or poor retirement benefits. In 2000, Zhengzhou railway police resolved 63 incidents of collective petitioning involving 1,282 railway bureau staff and their family members. In 2005, the number of these incidents and the people involved jumped more than six-fold to 419 and nearly threefold to 3,513, respectively. Fifty of the cases in 2005 were mass incidents, including those plotted but not carried out, involving “attacks on the railroad and obstruction of railway transit.”

In close collaboration with local governments and security contractors, railway police intercept tens of thousands of petitioners who are not railway employees, with most of them taken into custody during “sensitive” periods such as the two meetings (i.e., the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March) and June Fourth. In the four-year period from 2008 to 2011, Zhengzhou railway police prevented more than 3,000 petitioners from traveling to Beijing. Further south in Nanning, Guangxi Province, more than 3,300 petitioners were intercepted on their way to Beijing in the seven years between 2004 and 2010. In both places the highest number of annual interceptions was in 2009, which marked the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The most recent petitioning statistic Dui Hua uncovered was from 2012, when Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as general secretary during the 18th National People’s Congress. That year a disaggregated total of 7,799 individuals attempting to petition either provincial or central governments were intercepted or inspected by Zhengzhou railway police.

Interception of Petitioners En Route to Beijing by Local Railway Police
Zhengzhou, Henan Nanning, Guangxi
Year No. of petitions No. of petitioners No. of petitions No. of petitioners
2004 - - 38 632
2005 - - 43 414
2006 - - 54 296
2008 46 >380 105 507
2009 137 1,431 103 695
2010 55 579 60 379
2011 69 706 - -
Sources: Dui Hua, Zhengzhou Railway Bureau Yearbook, Nanning Railway Bureau Yearbook

Railway police require ethnic minorities to bear the brunt of more stringent security protocols due to ethnic unrest. In the wake of the Lhasa Riots in 2008, several locales in eastern coastal province of Zhejiang issued a passenger, freight, and delivery safety opinion requesting all transport units to thoroughly check the identity and belongings of each Tibetan, Uyghur, foreign national, and other suspicious persons. In the same year, Zhengzhou railway police singled out 5,422 Uyghur and 608 Tibetan passengers for examination.

While its focus has shifted over the past few decades in response to new challenges to the CCP’s grip on power, political investigation by railway police has continued to be an important part of stability maintenance. From its origins in fighting overseas forces, political work along the rails has come to tackle the homegrown protests and dissent of rights-conscious Chinese citizens.  

* These areas were identified by Luoyang Railway Public Security in Henan Province for the period from 1986 through 1990 and appear consistent with work carried out by railway police nationwide during that time. back to top ↑

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Converting Cult Work: From 610 to Social Service

Set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, the Loving Heart Home is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the reentry rate for detained cult members. Photo credit: An Shu

For more than 15 years, Chinese politico-legal authorities have carried out a wide-ranging campaign against so-called cult organizations that has been coordinated via a network of dedicated units known as “610” (read “six ten”) offices. (These offices are named after the date of the order that founded them: June 10, 1999.) Although the effort to wipe out organizations like Falun Gong or the Almighty God sect has, from time to time, featured prominently in Chinese news coverage, much less has been written about the anti-cult offices or the often-controversial measures they employ.

That changed recently with a long feature published in the September 25, 2014, edition of Southern Weekly. The piece focuses on one particular 610 office in an urban district of Nanjing and the innovations its director, Cheng Dongxiao, has introduced to try to make the work of “converting” (or “de-programming”) cult members more effective and less coercive.

Cheng’s main innovation is the establishment of a center in which “model converts” are responsible for helping to convert exisitng cult members. Mirroring trends in other areas of law enforcement and “comprehensive social management,” this is an example of how China might use a community corrections approach to deal with social problems that in the past have relied on detention measures like reeducation through labor (RTL) or legal education classes. Now that RTL has been eliminated and legal education has come under increased scrutiny for, among other things, its murky legal basis, new approaches like Cheng’s may gain some traction with reformers.

As Cheng himself admits, even if less coercive measures are adopted, there is still an urgent need for clearer legislation to govern the practices associated with anti-cult “conversions,” particularly insofar as these practices involve deprivation of liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article pays no attention to the more fundamental question of whether China’s efforts to eliminate “cults” is justifiable from a human rights standpoint. This standpoint demands that freedoms of opinion be given due consideration in dealing with whatever harmful social consequences these organizations and their members may cause.

As significant as the publication of this unusual article is, it is equally significant to note that it was removed from the Southern Weekly website soon after publication. The reason is not particularly obvious, though there are a number of possibilities. Perhaps this rare look behind the scenes of one of China’s most secretive institutions was simply too daring. Perhaps the softer community-based approach of the Loving Heart Home is considered discordant with recent efforts to strike hard against Almighty God. Perhaps Cheng Dongxiao’s candid assessment of an inconsistent anti-cult system or the article’s description of what takes place in anti-cult “study sessions” was deemed unfit for public consumption.

Another possibility is that the article was pulled because there is, at present, insufficient consensus among the relevant authorities about the merits of Cheng’s approach to combatting organizations classified as cults. There may exist other competing community-corrections approaches or even more far-ranging proposals that would limit the state’s role in dealing with this issue altogether. Thanks to the story’s deletion, we are left to wonder not only where China’s anti-cult campaign might be headed but how much, if any, further sunlight will be allowed to shine on the issue.

In Conversion of “Cult Members,” “610” Goes from Secretive to Open

Southern Weekly, 25 September 2014

After five years, conversion work has begun to pay off at the Loving Heart Home, as attested by the award banners sent by many of the “cult members” who have graduated from its study classes. Photo credit: Liu Yanxun

Past: Preaching the law had little effect. When they left the study sessions, they hadn’t changed deep down and remained cult members.
Later: “Putting cult teachings in context and using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.” For example, finding weak points and flaws in specific cult scripture and using them as evidence. This collapses a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and achieves double the results with half the effort.
Present: Establish the Loving Heart Home and focus on the “reentry rate.” Implement “self-education and self-management.” It’s like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, and a parent treating a child.
Future: Conversion needs to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest, and the 610 offices need to gradually recede into the background.

It was raining with low hanging clouds in Nanjing on September 23, 2014. The radio said a typhoon was skirting the region.

Cheng Dongxiao sat in a government office building just a few kilometers from the Yangtze River, his face sunny and full of laughter. Average in height, he spoke rhythmically and rather quickly. Cheng is the director of the 610 Office in Nanjing’s Gulou District. To the outside world, this is an extremely mysterious unit, the full name of which is the Gulou District Office for Prevention and Handling of Cult Problems.

Cheng Dongxiao has been working to convert cult members for 15 years. Since 2009, he has been trying to find more effective conversion methods. The “Loving Heart Home,” which has been running for the past five years, is a product of that effort. “There are very few other countries in the world that have a huge, top-to-bottom anti-cult organizational system like we do,” he notes. “But the actual results from these years have demonstrated that severe anti-cult measures have not only failed to turn the problem around, they have actually made it even more serious.”

“The fight against cults is, in the end, only a contradiction among the people,” Cheng Dongxiao says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and ought to be carried out with great fanfare!”

“I’m Most Opposed to Coercive Methods”

Cheng Dongxiao looks back fondly to the past: “Chairman Mao’s ideology is our most outstanding, most valuable possession.” But after more than 30 years of reform and opening, the emphasis on economic development has led to a kind of ideological slackening, he says. This, he feels, is unfortunate.

“When I was first transferred here from the district’s bureau of industry, I didn’t understand at all,” he recalled. “Later, I slowly came to understand the difficult lives these people have experienced.” He said that even though some of them had enjoyed a good life materially, there was something lacking in their spiritual life. Perhaps they encountered some misery or sorrow in their lives and wanted to find a kind of spiritual support.

On June 10, 1999, China set up a hierarchical system of anti-cult prevention organizations, which became commonly known as “610” offices.

At that time, Nanjing was one of the areas hardest hit by the cult problem nationwide, and Gulou, Xiaguan, and Xuanwu districts were the areas of Nanjing most affected. There were large numbers of cult members living in these three districts, including many at high levels within cult organizations and many who created disturbances and spread rumors. The first cult organization to appear in Jiangsu originated in Xiaguan District. At that time, a total of eight cult members were coalesced around a university lecturer.

For the first two years, Cheng Dongxiao says, “all we did was [detain people], and the RTL camps and similar places were all full.”

Besides detention centers and RTL camps, another place for reforming cult members goes by the name of “study class.” With sessions in the spring and fall, each session of 10–20 people lasts for three months. Responsibility for attending to the students goes to government personnel, as well as laid-off workers who receive 100 yuan per day. Cheng says that before each class begins, “We advise these attendants to remain vigilant and take shifts irregularly.”

Cult members sent to study classes stay in standard rooms with a toilet, similar to those found in guesthouses. If a cult member becomes over-excited or unruly, the number of attendants will immediately be increased. “To date,” [notes Cheng Dongxiao,] “there have been no homicides, generally only self-harm.” So [they need attendants with them] “24 hours a day, eating with them, living with them, watching television with them.”

During the daytime, cult members attend classes in their rooms, with one or several instructors for each person. “To make a somewhat inapt comparison,” [Cheng Dongxiao says,] “it feels a bit like a graduate student meeting with his or her advisor.” Sometimes, they may go to a dedicated counseling room, with two instructors generally responsible for counseling as a team. These days, some locations also hold “lecture classes,” but only to deal with issues common to all cult members. Individual problems are harder to resolve, and “individual problems are more pronounced in cult members.”

Cheng Dongxiao admits that they had little success at first trying to preach law to the cult members. Many former cult members who already been converted told Southern Weekly that merely being locked up and preached to about the law had little effect on them. Li He recalls that she wasn’t the least bit afraid back then: “Group solidarity ran high among us inside the RTL camp. We sang songs and recited our scripture, the sound reverberating in waves so much that we really raised the roof.”

Generally, the study classes last three months, which can be adjusted according to each individual’s circumstances and consideration of whether they have fully converted and can successfully leave the study class. To date, there is in fact no clear set of quantitative indicators [used to make such determinations].

For many years, the experience has involved the “three statements and five documents.” The “three statements” refer to the “statement of guarantee, statement of repentance, and statement of severed ties.” The “five documents” require the individual to write clearly on these five subjects: “how I got involved in cult activities in the past,” “past and current views on cults,” “why cults are a danger to society,” “in what ways cults have endangered me,” and “how I have endangered society.”

Do some people fake it? It’s possible. One reason is “our instructors can’t actually teach.” Some cult members write their three statements and five documents, leave the study class, and go home. But they have not truly changed. They’re still cult members and still believe in those old cult ideas. Some even become more committed to the cult.

“What I’m most opposed to are coercive methods,” says Cheng Dongxiao.

Cheng picked up a stack of documents from the table, saying they were quantitative indicators proposed by a group of experts who had recently come up from Xiamen. He said they were currently working on a project to develop a comprehensive assessment form to measure cult-member conversion. The hope was that this would be more scientific and systematic than the artificial and subjective “three statements and five documents” and better at evaluating whether a cult member has truly transformed their thinking and beliefs.

“It’s Hard to Change Beliefs or Souls”

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues began looking for more effective methods in 2002, including “putting cult teachings in context” and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings.”

“Besides the law, you also have to start from cult doctrines and scriptures,” [Cheng says]. The bookshelves in his office are completely filled with cult literature. “If I want to destroy the cults, I have to understand cult scripture and doctrine better than the cult members themselves, then compare it to orthodox Buddhism or scientific theories and look for weak points and flaws.”

“I’ve read these several dozen times,” Cheng says. “I’m constantly going back to check things. We can’t neglect any areas.”

When trying to undermine cult teachings, one ordinarily might seize upon some bad aspect of the cult leader. “On the surface, he’s telling you how to be a good person, but in fact he’s leading you toward a more self-centered, autocratic, and lawless realm in which you separate yourself from the government and society.” Then, you look for weak points in specific scriptural passages to back up your point. This is the way you collapse a follower’s “sacred beliefs” and get double the results with half of the effort.

But it’s hard to avoid unexpected situations, and Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues have their own methods for responding to such things. For example, one day when he is trying to break a cult member, he might forget a passage of scripture or get stumped. “I’ll just switch the subject to something else,” he said. “But I’ll remember to go back to that issue and immediately go look it up. You have to understand everything.”

“It’s hard to change people’s beliefs or their souls,” admits Cheng Dongxiao. “Closed classes are what we’ve found to work the best.” To this date, they’re still in use.

When they first started the study classes, many government officials looked down on cult members. But once they were sent to classes, these cult members would begin talking non-stop and even tried to “turn” some of the personnel assigned to them. Some of the cult members were intellectuals and could quote from the classics. “Occasionally, we couldn’t out-talk them,” Cheng laughs, “so they forced us to study.”

As for those cult scriptures and theoretical books, Cheng says: “Once you feel it’s necessary to read these things to do your work, reading them won’t be too much of a headache.” But some personnel found it very difficult. “Once I had a deputy who said he really couldn’t keep reading—every time he tried, he’d doze off,” [recalls Cheng]. “I told him he wasn’t suited for this kind of work and was better off working for the neighborhood committee. Soon afterwards, he was transferred there.”

“There’s not a lot of novelty in this kind of work,” says Cheng Dongxiao. “It’s not like you reporters, who get a new subject to work on every day. For us, it’s repetitive.”

“Consolidated Reentry, Coordinated Education”

The Loving Heart Home and the Care and Concern Association are both located in the same courtyard. There, 55 volunteers work hard together with Cheng Dongxiao to convert “cult members.” Photo credit: An Shu

Once they leave the study classes, many cult members have nothing to do. They’re basically all theists who see gods and ghosts behind everything. If they get sick or have some complications in their lives, they will turn again to the cult. “It’s easy to relapse,” admits Cheng. The relapse rate among cult members is quite high, basically the same as with drug addicts at 70 to 80 percent.

Some start reading books on Buddhism or Christianity. Sometimes they’ll get some of their former classmates to read along with them and discuss the books. But if they gather together for too long, outsiders will start to get nervous and report them. Then the neighborhood committee and police come to prevent them from meeting. This leads these former cult members to fall into a new trap of emptiness and depression.

Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues thought there had to be a better way than simply dispersing them. As the saying goes, “Damming the flow is not as good as dredging a new channel.” So, they planned to find a place where they could let former cult members openly and freely gather to chat. In the end, that’s why they set up the “Loving Heart Home,” a place inseparable from Zhang Jing’s research project.

Zhang Jing was one of those “classic cases.” Zhang, 58, is a researcher in sociology at the local academy of social sciences. Around 2000, she lost herself in a cult. Like many other cult members, she went to Beijing to petition and was sent to RTL and study classes. Finally, under Cheng Dongxiao’s efforts to “undermine cult teachings with cult teachings,” she was successfully converted in 2002. After leaving the study class, she made cults the subject of her own research. In 2007, she received support from the Jiangsu 610 Office and the provincial academy of social science to work on a project titled “Present Situation and Countermeasures for Education and Conversion of Cult Members in Jiangsu.”

Using the methods of sociology, she launched a study of 13 counties and cities in the province, ultimately producing a 50,000-character report of statistics and analysis and identifying several issues. Zhang Jing told Southern Weekly how government officials at all levels use follow-up strategies in which three or four officials take responsibility for individuals who complete study classes and, during major holidays or sensitive periods, go to their homes to follow up or “check in.” These methods make people who have already been “converted” feel uncomfortable. Zhang Jing describes these tactics as “pressure follow-ups” and “charitable check-ins.”

Besides this, another clear problem is the way that units at all levels pay attention only to the “conversion rate” when it comes to cult members, “which is just like paying attention only to GDP figures in thinking about economic development.” This leads to false reporting and exaggeration of success. Zhang Jing suggests that instead of the “conversion rate,” we should be considering the “reentry rate” which would give a truer measure of effectiveness.

The “Loving Heart Home,” set up by the Gulou District 610 Office in 2009, is a local experiment by Chen Dongxiao and his colleagues to try to raise the “reentry rate.”

The Loving Heart Home is located in an abandoned school in Xiaguan District. Passing an alleyway piled high with discarded junk and stepping through a set of large metal double doors, you enter this spacious area, quiet and filled with tall, luxuriant parasol trees.

Cheng Dongxiao says, “We’re like a doctor treating a patient, a teacher treating a student, a parent treating a child.”

“Enrich Their Minds So They Won’t Go Back to the Cult”

When the Loving Heart Home was first set up, Cheng Dongxiao and his colleagues still had their doubts.

To that point, throughout the country the conversion of cult members had always taken place in closed classes, because the thinking was it was better to keep people separate rather than gather them together. But at the Loving Heart Home, they were actually all gathered together. At the time, some senior officials worried: “What if they repeatedly collude with each other and revolt en masse? What then?”

Cheng Dongxiao firmly insisted that this would not happen. His confidence came from the “troops under his control,” a group of 22 former cult members whom he had successfully converted.

“When I started running study classes and converting people in 2002,” [says Cheng,] “these people gradually joined me and started to help.” Back then, they were not called volunteers; instead, they were considered “model converts.”

“The idea was to have them use their own experiences to illustrate the law,” says Cheng. “You needed to treat them like friends. Most of them were older then me, so I addressed them as ‘Big Sister.’”

The Loving Heart Home practices “self-education and self-management.” Among the volunteers, a group of seven to nine forms an organization committee responsible for routine daily matters. “General matters are decided on their own, following discussion by the organization committee, while for important matters, they seek guidiance from the relevant government agencies.” Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, a certain number of volunteers remain on duty. Each year, there is a meeting of volunteers and every two to three years there is an election of a new organization committee and revision of the Loving Heart Home charter.

Li Zhonglan chairs the organization committee. Slightly plump, Li fell into a cult back in 1995 and once was a major figure in the local Nanjing cult organization who traveled widely “propagating the teachings.” When China outlawed the cult in 1999, she had a complete breakdown. Li Zhonglan told Southern Weekly that it was not until 2002, after study classes and “using cult teachings to undermine cult teachings,” that she was finally converted. “Now, at the Loving Heart Home, I can help others to clear up their confusion and help myself as well,” she said.

Besides the organization committee, ther are three others that Cheng Dongxiao has selected to be permanently stationed at the Loving Heart Home to serve as liaisons between the home and the 610 office. In Cheng Dongxiao’s words, they’re there to “pour some sand in the mix” [that is, to ensure a bit of variety –Trans.].

Qiao Zhanyu is one of those three. He came to the Loving Heart Home after retiring as principal and party-committee secretary at a middle school. He told Southern Weekly that, back when he was still a principal, there was an art teacher at his school who became mixed up with a cult. He decided to “take charge of his own children” and had teachers at the school rotate in shifts every day, two attendants per shift, to help the teacher convert. It was this experience that made Qiao the most successful candidate for this current work. But he says, “This is harder than managing a school, you know. You can’t rely on issuing compulsory orders or administrative sanctions. You have to put on a kind face and make people see the light through reasoning with them.” He says when he first arrived at the Loving Heart Home, the volunteers there considered him to be a government “mole” or “spy” and they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But after a while, “I treated people with sincerity and people began to respond to that. Now, they often don’t call me ‘Secretary Qiao,” but call me ‘Brother Qiao’ instead.”

Often, Loving Heart Home will show movies and programs on traditional culture. “We generally choose sentimental movies, like the Taiwanese movie My Beloved or Jane Eyre,” says Cheng Dongxiao with a laugh. “The cult took them away from ordinary human emotions, so we want to strengthen their sense of ethical sentiment and sympathy.”

Sometimes they invite experts on religon and Confucianism to give lectures. They also run a quarterly magazine called Spirit Station. Cheng says, “We want to enrich their minds so that they won’t return to the cult.”

“610 Office Needs to Gradually Recede into the Background”

All sorts of people become members of cults. There are former senior police officers, a head of a university organization department, civil servants from government departments, and others. At Loving Heart Home, people generally stay for around three months. Once they’re educated and stable, they don’t need to return. Of course, some of those former believers who have been stabilized apply to become volunteers and continue participating in activities at the home.

To date, the number of volunteers at the Loving Heart Home has grown from 22 to 55. Some of them are not former cult members but university students or concerned members of the public who have come purely to volunteer.

“Each year we recruit a little, but we don’t dare recruit too much,” says Cheng. “Those who want to be volunteers must be reliable.” Recently, their work has received recognition from senior levels of the national 610 office. At the recent Loving Heart Home fifth anniversary meeting, a central official came to attend. Some of the local officials in attendance were even moved to tears.

Volunteers don’t receive much remuneration, Cheng says. “Actually, no one is here for money. They’re here to educate and rescue people.”

“But the current situation remains as serious as ever,” says Cheng. “Besides Falun Gong, Almighty God has become a main force. It is based on Christian scriptures so those doing conversion work must study new material.” Currently, his colleagues and the volunteers need to read the Bible and Almighty God doctrine. “[As Sun Tzu said:] If you know yourself and your enemy, you can win the battle every time.”

When Cheng Dongxiao says “the current situation remains serious,” he also means “the state needs to standardize its anti-cult work. Currently, each locality has its own way of doing things and it’s all messed up.”

“For example personnel is complicated, in some places the 610 office operates independently, rather than as part of the local government like we do here,” [he explains]. “In some places, it falls under the politico-legal committee, in others it falls under the public security bureau, and in others still it falls under the domestic security protection unit.” Not long ago, the relevant state authorities gathered directors of local 610 offices for a conference. Cheng Dongxiao was one of them. He said very straightforwardly that China’s current anti-cult efforts need to be regulated through legislation that clarifies the screening criteria for cults and the responsibilities of the governing authorities. “For example,” he asks, “should the the National People’s Congress Standing Committee authorize the Ministry of Public Security to take responsibility?”

There’s also the problem of funding. “Our anti-cult work in Gulou District is part of the government budget,” he explains. “But many locations lack funding. How can they carry out cult conversion work?” Cheng said the problem is especially serious in northeast China. Once, at a meeting, he shared a room with a prefecture-level 610 Office director from somewhere in the northeast. As they chatted, that director began complaining about how he only had four people working for him in a city where there were more than 60,000 cult members. “In Nanjing,” Cheng notes for comparison “we only have just over 4,000 cult members in the entire city.”

“The bottom line is [that anti-cult work needs] to be more public, brought out into the community, and turned into a public interest,” [says Cheng.] “As the government pays for more social services, the 610 Office needs to gradually recede into the background.”

(Li He, Zhang Jing, Li Zhonglan are all pseudonyms)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deciding Death: How Chinese Judges Review Capital Punishment Cases

In a separate unmarked building, the five criminal divisions of the Supreme People's Court review capital punishment cases. Image credit: internet image.

In the eastern part of Beijing, not far from the city’s main railway station, sits an unmarked, multi-storey office building whose importance can only be discerned by the presence of armed police guards posted at its entrance. This is where the five criminal divisions of China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) are located, the place where the fates of the country’s death-row defendants are ultimately determined.

A recent feature article in Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly newspaper has shed new light on how the more than 300 court personnel who work in this building handle the thousands of capital punishment cases sent for final review each year. Below, we summarize the article’s descriptions of the process in order to enable even more people to understand the way that these life-and-death decisions are made.

After the appeals process has run its course and a decision involving the death penalty takes effect, the case file is sent to the SPC for mandatory review. The case is first assigned a case number, and then all of the relevant case files are delivered to one of the court’s five divisions according to the geographic origin of the case or, in some cases, the type of crime involved.

Unlike the other four divisions, which are larger and handle many more cases, the court’s second criminal division is dedicated to handling review of some of the most sensitive cases: those involving crimes by government or party officials; cases involving foreigners or defendants from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan; crimes under the category of “endangering state security”; and cases involving defendants from Xinjiang.

Division Region Specialization
First Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shandong, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian Crimes against the rights of women and children, the environment, intellectual property
Second Nationwide, Xinjiang Crimes involving people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and foreign countries; occupational crimes; crimes involving members of the armed forces; cases involving crimes of endangering state security and politically sensitive cases; all Xinjiang cases
Third Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, Chongqing, Tibet, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Jiangxi Organized crime
Fourth Heilongjiang, Jilin, Hebei, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan Major accident liability crimes
Fifth Beijing, Tianjian, Liaoning, Shandong, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hubei, Hunan Drug crime
Source: Dui Hua, Southern Weekly

Within each division, cases are assigned first to quasi-administrative units divided either by geography or case type. These units then assign each case to a panel of three judges, one of whom is designated as the principal case manager. This judge will take responsibility for reviewing the case files and liaising with lower courts or law-enforcement agencies over any questions that might arise.

Sometimes, review of the case files uncovers very basic errors that could have an impact either on conviction or sentencing. In many instances, additional details or investigation will be required, and sometimes the SPC judge handling the case will have to go personally to the provinces to conduct investigations. According to one SPC official, additional investigation was required in 39 percent of the cases sent to the SPC for review in 2013.

Under new provisions introduced into the Criminal Procedure Law in 2012, judges are also required to interview defendants before deciding whether or not to confirm a death sentence. If the case is relatively straightforward, these interviews may be conducted remotely via video feed. However, if more problems are uncovered in the case file, then the judge handling the case will typically go to conduct the interview in person. One judge told Southern Weekly that, in the interest of reducing the burden on local courts, SPC judges try to minimize travel to the provinces and attempt to handle multiple cases on a single trip as much as possible.

The principal judge will then write a detailed report covering the results of his or her review of the case, summarizing any problems with the evidence or other issues that could have an impact on conviction or sentencing. This report is then circulated along with the case file to the other two members of the judicial panel responsible for the case, each of whom conduct their own review and write their own report.

Then, after each of the three judges has reviewed the case independently, they meet to discuss the case as a group in the presence of a court clerk. After coming to a decision, the panel then reports to the responsible division head and SPC vice president. If the decision is to execute the death penalty, the case then goes to the SPC president for his signature.

If court officials identify a problem with the panel’s decision or the panel is unable to reach consensus on how to decide, the case might be sent to the division’s council of chief judges for additional discussion. If this does not lead to a decision, the case might be sent for discussion by the SPC adjudication committee or the special committee for criminal adjudication. The Southern Weekly article makes pains to note that these bodies play only an advisory role and that final decision-making power rests solely with the three-judge panel.

As they review death penalty cases, judges pay particular attention to issues of evidence and penal policy. In recent years, the SPC has introduced and refined measures for excluding evidence that has been obtained illegally, and the court’s stricter line on evidence is one of the reasons why China’s highest court rejects roughly 10 percent of death penalty cases each year.

The impact of penal policy is much more fluid and hard to predict. Over time, the court has settled on a number of general principles designed to reduce use of the death penalty. For example, in cases involving the death of a single victim the death penalty is typically waived if the defendant surrenders or if the case involves a dispute among family members or neighbors. But putting these more lenient policies into effect often requires overcoming resistance from a victim’s family members. In fact, one reason why the process of reviewing death penalties is often delayed is because efforts are underway to use court mediation to “work on” these family members and obtain their agreement for more lenient punishment.

For example, the article reveals that in the case of Li Yan (李彦), whose sentence to death for murdering her abusive husband caused a national sensation in 2013, the SPC’s adjudication committee decided relatively early on that the circumstances of the case did not require her immediate execution. The victim’s family initially refused to accept anything less that Li’s execution, even staging protests outside local court buildings. But rather than give in to such pressure, the court delayed its decision until emotions died down and the victim’s relatives were able to accept the decision.

As the Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog recently pointed out, one potentially groundbreaking reform being considered would ensure that all defendants in death penalty cases are represented by a lawyer during the death penalty review process. The Southern Weekly article reveals that the SPC is in the process of drafting provisions entitled “Regulations on Considering the Views of Defense Lawyers in Death Penalty Review Cases.” These follow on amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law in 2012 aimed at strengthening legal representation during the death penalty review process that have not yet fully translated into a right to legal defense for capital defendants. Ensuring that all defendants in cases involving capital punishment have legal representation throughout the criminal process, regardless of economic means, would be another important step toward strengthening rights protections in the criminal process in China.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Torture in Harbin Drug Cases Met with Little Punishment

Seven defendants stand trial for torture at the appellate court, Harbin Intermediate People's Court, in August. Image credit:

A recent court case in the northeastern city of Harbin is shining new light on some of the extremes to which police investigators occassionally go to get criminal suspects to confess in China. It also raises new questions about whether the Chinese criminal justice system punishes the perpetrators of torture severely enough to act as a deterrent.

Last May, a court in Harbin convicted seven defendants of coercing confessions through torture in connection with seven separate incidents, all committed in March 2013. The court imposed sentences ranging from a suspended one-year prison sentence to two-and-a-half years in prison. At least one of the defendants appealed the verdict, landing the case at the Harbin Intermediate People’s Court for an appellate hearing at the end of August.

The court found evidence of what appeared to be routine use of electric shock and other physical torture in the investigation of drug cases by officers at the Daowai District Branch Public Security Bureau. One suspect recalled being handcuffed to a metal chair and shocked with electric batons. Mustard oil was poured up his nose. When he refused to tell police where he got his drugs, they took off his shoe and applied wires to one of his toes. The wires were then connected to an old-fashioned military crank telephone, which sent a current of 120 volts through his body as they cranked it, causing his entire body to convulse.

The same technique was used during another drug investigation that same month. Again, a drug suspect surnamed Liang was handcuffed to a chair. When he began to shout, a towel was stuffed in his mouth. One interrogator began beating Liang in the face with the sole of a shoe. During this ordeal, Liang lost consciousness. By the time they realized that something was wrong, he was dead.

One of the unusual things about this case is that only three of the defendants were police officers. Most of the defendants, including the ones responsible for carrying out most of the actual physical torture, were what is commonly known as “special informants” (teqing, or teshu qingbao renyuan). Police investigators often rely on these informants to provide information or leads that can help them crack cases. In this instance, however, it seems that police were also delegating some of their authority to carry out interrogations—or at least using special informants to do some of their dirty work for them.

Another thing that has attracted attention about the case is the relatively light sentences, especially considering that one victim of torture apparently died during interrogation. As legal scholar Wang Gangqiao pointed out in an opinion piece published in The Beijing News on September 23, the maximum penalty for coercing confessions through torture is three years’ imprisonment, but torture resulting in serious injury or death should be punished according to the more serious offenses of intentional injury or homicide. He questions the court’s failure to hand down more serious penalties in this case, even hinting at the possibility of collusion between law-enforcement authorities to prevent torturers from being held fully accountable.

According to reports, however, local prosecutors lacked evidence to bring homicide charges because police cremated the body of the deceased as the incident was under investigation. As a consequence, a deputy chief at the Daowai Public Security Bureau who ordered the cremation has since been put on trial for abuse of power.

Use of torture to extract confessions is a problem in many countries, especially in situations where investigators lack the skill or experience to build a case through other means. But acceptance of torture can also become part of an institutional mindset, especially when there are expectations of impunity. In this case, the highly politicized nature of China’s “People’s War on Drugs” and the criminal justice system’s long-standing reliance on confession to secure convictions appear to have been contributing factors.

Don’t Let Harbin Torture Trial Serve as Negative Model

Wang Gangqiao
The Beijing News, 23 September 2014

Recently, the trial of Wu Yan and others charged with extracting confessions through torture entered the second-instance appellate phase in Harbin. Earlier, the court of first instance found evidence of seven instances of torture, all occurring in March 2013. Official reporting on the case said “the methods used to extract confessions were extremely vile.” [One defendant,] Wu Yan, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. [Another,] Zhao Xiaoguang, received a one-year sentence, suspended for a year. All of the other defendants in the first-instance trial received sentences of between one and two years in prison.

A maximum sentence of two-and-a-half years doesn’t seem all that severe. Looking at the statute, the Criminal Law provision on coercing confessions through torture states: “Any law-enforcement officer who extorts confession from a criminal suspect or defendant by torture or extorts testimony from a witness by violence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years or penal servitude. If he causes injury, disability, or death [to the victim], he shall be convicted and given a heavier punishment based on the provisions covering the crimes of intentional injury or intentional homicide.” According to the Xinhua News Agency’s report on the case yesterday, on March 24 of last year, Wu Yan accused Chen Xiaowei, Pan Yongquan, and Li Yingbin of using an old-fashioned military crank telephone to electrocute a [suspect] surnamed Liang; Cheng Xiaowei was in the process of beating Liang in the face with the sole of a shoe when Liang suddenly died.

This is probably the reason why the Harbin torture case has been described as involving “extremely vile” methods. The law says that when torture leads to death, it should be “given a heavier punishment based on the provisions covering the crimes of intentional injury or intentional homicide.” Looking at the less serious of these two offenses, intentional injury resulting in death, the penalty should be “fixed-term imprisonment of 10 years or more, life imprisonment, or the death penalty.” This is worlds apart from the sentences handed down in the present case. The reason for this case being tried in second instance is apparently because the defendants appealed. It’s unclear whether the prosecution also appealed the verdict acording to the provisions of the Criminal Law on the grounds that the sentences were abnormally light. It’s really nonsense to think that a one- or two-year sentence—especially a suspended sentence—could help to contain the coercion of confessions through torture, a practice which previous prohibitions have failed to stop.

It’s even more noteworthy that, of the defendants in this case, only Wu Yan, Zhang Siliang, and Zhao Xiaoguang were police officers. Defendants Cheng Xiaowei, Pan Yongquan, Li Chunlong, and Li Yingbin, who also took part in torturing suspects, were not police at all, but rather, “special informants.”

Investigative power is a power specially designated by the state that only specialized units and personnel are authorized to exercise. The interrogation of criminal suspects is the most important part of the investigative process, an activity that is to be carried out only by qualified investigative personnel. “Special informants,” also known as xianren, are individuals whose status is defined by their ability to provide needed information for use by investigators during the investigative process and help them to solve cases. According to the law, “special informants” are still ordinary citizens. They play an auxilliary role in investigations and come under the responsibility of investigative units, but they do not have any investigative power themselves.

Everyone understands the evils of coercing confessions through torture. Police are law-enforcement personnel who have a personal responsibility to maintain law and discipline and safeguard human rights. So when some law-enforcers instead knowingly violate the law and treat torture as an ordinary investigative tool, they ought to be severely punished in accordance with the law. In this case, however, if the prosecution never appealed the verdict, then under the principle of “no heavier penalty on appeal,” the court of second instance cannot increase the penalties given to the defendants in the first-instance verdict. This perhaps demonstrates that, in some locations, police, prosecutors, and courts have come to a kind of “consensus” about lenient punishment for the use of torture to extract confessions.

“Incidents” in the criminal process like this Harbin torture case are a portent of things to come. Behind this incident are the sprouts of many other incidents. For example, the extreme chaos surrounding the system of “special informants,” the extremely casual way that investigative powers are delegated, etc. Open violations like this involve “sprouts of accidents” that should have been extremely obvious to see. While we are pursuing criminal responsibility for coercion of confessions through torture, those units and officials who are responsible for oversight should undertake some serious reflection: As the “safety officials” of the criminal process, what have you done to contain and eradicate this kind of mishap? Oversight requires the establishment of rules and measures that prevent law enforcers from doing things they’re not supposed to do. These are preventative measures for which we can no longer wait!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Surge in Foreign Prisoners in Beijing

Foreign prisoners marching in Shanghai Qingpu Prison. Image credit: Phoenix Weekly

The paucity of statistics on China’s prisoner population sometimes results in observers concluding that recent events represent new trends. For example, a recent spate of arrests and convictions of foreign nationals—e.g., Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt on suspicion of espionage, Briton Peter Humphrey and Chinese-American Yu Yinzheng for allegedly trafficking in private information, and naturalized American citizen Vincent Wu for allegedly running a criminal enterprise (China does not recognize Wu’s American citizenship)—has raised concerns that foreign firms and businesspeople operating in China are being treated more harshly. Official statistics uncovered by Dui Hua indicate that growth in China’s number of foreign prisoners may be an ongoing trend, but that historically, the most common reason for incarceration probably relates to a different business, trafficking in drugs.

Annual volumes of Beijing Prison Yearbook show that the number of foreign citizens (not including Taiwanese or Hong Kong and Macau “compatriots”) imprisoned in the capital nearly quintupled between 2006 and 2010, reaching 232 prisoners, or 1.8 percent of the prisoner population in China’s second largest city. The number of countries with citizens incarcerated in Beijing rose from 22 to 53. The number of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau residents incarcerated in Beijing rose 170 percent to 68 prisoners.

Breakdown of Foreign Nationals in Beijing Prisons by Nationality, 2006‒2010
Region Country 2006 2010 Region Country 2006 2010
Europe France 1 3 Latin America Brazil 3
Lithuania 1 Columbia 3 3
Portugal 1 Peru 1 4
Russia 1 1 Uruguay 1
Sweden 1 Africa Benin 1
UK 1 Cameroon 9
Middle East &
Central Asia
Afghanistan 2 Congo 2
Iran 1 8 Egypt 1
Kyrgyzstan 2 Gambia 1
South Asia Bangladesh 1 Ghana 1 9
Cambodia a Guinea 5
India 2 3 Guinea-Bissau 2
Indonesia 3 Ivory Coast 2
Malaysia 3 3 Kenya 4
Pakistan 2 24 Lesotho 1 1
Philippines 1 4 Liberia 1 3
Singapore 2 4 Mali 1
Sri Lanka 1 Malawi 2
Thailand 9 Morocco 1
Vietnam 1 Namibia 1
East Asia Japan 3 3 Nigeria 4 47
Mongolia 1 South Africa 2
N. Korea 1 Sierra Leone 1
S. Korea 13 7 Tanzania 5
Oceania Australia 5 Togo 1
Nauru 1 2 Uganda 11
N. America Canada 1 4 Zambia 1
US 3 5 Zimbabwe 10
Total 49 232

Growth in the number of foreign prisoners took place virtually across the board. The combined number of prisoners from North America, Europe, and Australia tripled. However, the biggest growth came from African and South Asian countries, specifically Nigeria and Pakistan. The number of African prisoners rose from just nine in 2006 to 121 in 2010 to account for more than half of Beijing’s foreign prisoners. Outside Beijing, Dongguan Prison is known to be holding a large number of African prisoners who reside in Guangdong Province, home to tens of thousands of African migrant workers, business people, and those seeking political asylum in Hong Kong.

The reasons for the sharp rise in foreign prisoners in Beijing likely vary by country. Drug trafficking is probably a primary reason for the uptick in Pakistani and Nigerian prisoners, if not for prisoners of other countries. According to a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), China arrested 1,559 drug traffickers from 50 different countries in 2009. The previous year foreign drug traffickers arrested in China were primarily from Burma, Pakistan, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Nigerians and Pakistanis accounted for an equal percentage of drug trade arrests in Pakistan from 2000 to 2008, and police in Kazakhstan frequently report the involvement of Nigerians in trafficking Afghan heroin to China from Kazakhstan, the UNODC report said.

Although official data does not break down foreign prisoners by crime, a prison inspector told Dui Hua that most foreign nationals are convicted of economic crimes, including smuggling common goods, and drug-related crimes. A smaller percentage is convicted of violent crimes, and very few are convicted of endangering state security crimes, making the espionage charges against the Garratt’s quite rare. American geologist Xue Feng (薛峰) is the only foreign national known to be presently serving a sentence for endangering state security in China. He was transferred to Beijing No. 2 Prison to serve his sentence in 2011.

Direct foreign investment in Beijing rose a relatively modest 40 percent over the five-year period from 2006 to 2010. The 2008 Summer Olympics took place during the period, but the numbers of tourists visiting the capital in August 2008, the month the games were held, were a disappointing 388,000, considerably less than the anticipated 500,000. The poor attendance was due to the global economic crisis, which also affected investment and trade, and to strict security and visa controls imposed on visitors to Beijing.

South Korea, Malawi, North Korea, and Sweden were the only countries for which official data showed a decline in prisoner numbers. The number of South Korean prisoners dropped from 13 in 2006 to seven in 2010. This may be due to requests for prison transfers. According to a report by The Global Times, South Korea originated 107 of the 198 requests for prisoner transfers (both within China and to foreign countries) that the Ministry of Justice had received by early 2012. Dui Hua research indicates that South Korean pastors and missionaries have been imprisoned in China for helping North Korean refugees enter South Korea, while those charged with proselytizing have been deported.

Of the 232 foreign citizens in Beijing prisons at the end of 2010, 184 were men and 48—a striking 21 percent—were women. (Women generally account for 2 to 10 percent of national prison populations.) Most men were incarcerated in Beijing No. 2 Prison where they accounted for nearly 15 percent of all prisoners. Women were incarcerated in Beijing Women’s Prison. As in most provinces and municipalities with large foreign prisoner populations (e.g., Shanghai and Guangdong Province), in these Beijing prisons, foreign nationals are housed in separate cell blocks. Foreign prisoners, like prisoners from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, generally do not mix with inmates from the mainland. Yancheng Prison, China’s only prison run by the Ministry of Justice and not by a provincial prison bureau, is located immediately across Beijing’s border in Hebei Province. It houses scores of foreign nationals, including several sentenced by Beijing courts.

Managing large numbers of foreigner prisoners poses challenges for the Beijing Prison Administration Bureau (PAB). In addition to granting prisoners regular monthly visits from their family members, countries with consular agreements with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are permitted regular access to their citizens, in many cases in the form of monthly visits. In 2010, the PAB arranged more than 3,000 visits to foreign prisoners by diplomats, embassy officials, and family members from more than 40 countries and translated over 300 letters. That year, Beijing prisons also received 145 overseas visitors on legal exchanges including members of judicial delegations from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. A delegation of American experts organized by Dui Hua visited Beijing’s only juvenile reformatory in May 2010.

In 2008 a report by the Ministry of Justice called language and healthcare the two biggest problems facing the management of incarcerated foreign nationals, The Global Times reported. These and other issues can cause tension, and disciplinarily actions are sometimes taken. A group of 10 foreign citizens who were deemed to “pose management problems” was dispersed from Beijing to prisons in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin in 2010.

Deaths of incarcerated foreign nationals, though rare, do occur. A Zimbabwean woman died of heart complications resulting from AIDS in 2010. The Zimbabwean Embassy was notified, and the woman was cremated.

Beijing statistics provide a glimpse of what may be a national upswing in the number of foreign nationals imprisoned in China. Nationwide, there are more than 6,000 foreign nationals serving sentences in Chinese prisons, The Global Times reported citing Guo Jian’an, director of the Ministry of Justice Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs. In order to ensure the health, rights, and dignity of these men and women, consular involvement and access as well as Chinese laws are necessary—China’s Prison Law does not mention foreign prisoners.

Prison transfers should also be considered. China has signed bilateral prisoner transfer agreements with 11 countries and has been approached by more than 20 other countries regarding such agreements, according to The Global Times report. Guo Jian’an said China is willing to work on a case-by-case basis to transfer prisoners and has transferred more than 40 foreign prisoners, or about 10 people per year.

Particularly where drug crime is the major driver of incarceration, root causes like drug use, addiction, and poverty must also be addressed both inside and outside China to help people lead free lives.