Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Flouting Global Norms, China Continues to Incarcerate Prisoners for Abolished Crimes

The National People's Congress of China has abolished the crimes of counterrevolution and hooliganism, but prisoners continue to be incarcerate for these crimes. Image credit: CNN.

As Dui Hua has previously reported, the People’s Republic of China continues to incarcerate prisoners for the crimes of counterrevolution and hooliganism, despite the abolition of these crimes in 1997. A recent comparative survey of criminal laws, summarized below, notes that most countries (67%) allow some “retroactive ameliorative relief” (e.g., sentence reductions or early release) in the wake of legislative changes that abolish or lighten the sentences of certain crimes. The major governing human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), determine that prisoners should benefit from legal reforms that impose lighter penalties than those in existence at the time the offense was committed. Although prisoners serving sentences for abolished crimes have received sentence reductions, the Chinese government should unequivocally join other countries by releasing and doing more to reduce the sentences for these prisoners.

The Long Reach of Counterrevolution and Hooliganism

Chinese legal scholar Chen Jianfu points out the crime of counterrevolution has always assumed primary importance in the PRC’s criminal justice system. One of the first PRC legal provisions, the “Regulations for the Punishment of Counterrevolutionaries,” passed in 1951, reveals that counterrevolutionary crimes were primarily political in nature. When the PRC Criminal Law was amended in 1997, problems with enforcing these ambiguously worded, politically charged counterrevolutionary crimes led to the abolition of this criminal legal category; some of the activities that fell under counterrevolutionary crimes were included into the collection of “endangering state security” crimes which are tailored more directly at criminalizing specific actions that threaten the state.

Dui Hua’s research has uncovered the names of prisoners in China who continue to be incarcerated for political crimes of counterrevolution. Dui Hua has received written responses from the Chinese government that the following individuals are still imprisoned for crimes of counterrevolution:

  • Chen Yulin (陈瑜琳): Chen is a former Xinhua news agency employee who was convicted of espionage by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court on March 4, 2004 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Because Chen’s alleged offense took place before the amended Criminal Law took effect in 1997, he was tried under the 1979 Criminal Law for the crime of counterrevolution. Chen Yulin’s life sentence was commuted in 2007 and replaced with a fixed-term sentence of 19.5 years. Although Chen has received multiple sentence reductions, he is not due for release until August 26, 2020.
  • Jiang Cunde (蒋存德): Jiang is a former labor activist serving in Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Prison for counterrevolutionary sabotage and illegal possession of weapons. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in prison and in 1993 he was released on medical parole. In 1999, he was re-incarcerated for participating in demonstrations. Since then, Jiang has received only one sentence reduction, in 2004, when his life sentence was commuted to a fixed-term of 20 years’ imprisonment. A government response given to Dui Hua in 2015 stated that Jiang was held in a “mental retardation unit” and a response in 2018 indicated that there had been no change to Jiang’s sentence. Jiang’s sentence expires on August 22, 2024.
  • Abdukerim Abduweli: Abduweli was sentenced by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court to twelve years in prison on May 6, 1993, for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and leading a counterrevolutionary group. According to information provided by the Chinese government, his imprisonment has been extended several times. His sentence expires in December 2018.
  • Omer Akchi: Akchi was detained in December 1996 for organizing the Islamic Party of Allah. Akchi continues to serve his 21-year sentence for counterrevolution.

Although prisoners serving sentences for abolished crimes in China have received clemency in the form sentence reductions, cases such as Chen Yulin’s and Jiang Cunde’s demonstrate the importance Chinese leadership should place in aligning its laws with international. Dui Hua has received government responses on both cases in 2018. The responses confirm that Jiang Cunde has not received a sentence reduction in over 14 years and that by the time Chen Yulin is expected to be released, he will have served more than 16 years in prison. Dui Hua’s research has found that sentence reductions for prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution are infrequently handed down and those that are handed down are usually only in the months to yearlong range. In the case of life sentences that are commuted to fixed-term sentences, such as for Jiang and Chen, the time spent already served does not count towards their new fixed-term sentence, which is usually twenty years imprisonment. Another impediment to the formalization of retroactive ameliorative relief is that when sentence reductions are filed by the prisons to the courts the justification for the sentence reductions is based almost exclusively on evidence of meritorious behavior, never the fact that the prisoners are serving a sentence for a crime no longer in the books. Following the latest regulation on sentence reduction released by the Supreme People’s Court in November 2016, prisoners serving sentences for endangering state security crimes (which replaced many of the offenses previously categorized under counterrevolution) must wait three years, rather than the standard two years, before they can be considered for sentence reductions. The regulation fails to clarify the status of prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution and hooliganism.

The ill-defined crime of “hooliganism” was also abolished in 1997, yet nearly 200 individuals remain incarcerated for this crime. Inspired by the criminal laws of the former Soviet Union and other socialist states, hooliganism was loosely defined, granting state officials the broad discretion to punish undesirable behavior as defined in interpretations issued by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Between 1979-1997, a large but unknown number of people were convicted of this offense.

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments has uncovered the names of 182 prisoners serving sentences for hooliganism who were still in prison as of December 31, 2017. Although the offense was abolished in 1997, some of them received sentences in the 2000s or even more recently, because the Criminal Law imposes no limit on the period of prosecution for cases where the suspect has escaped after a case has been filed by police or procuratorate, or heard by the courts.

International Norms on Abolished Crimes

The Chinese government’s continued incarceration of these prisoners marks a clear break from international norms regarding changes to the criminal law and prisoners convicted of those crimes. This area of international and comparative criminal justice policy, referred to as “retroactive application of ameliorative law,” was examined in a recent report by the Human Rights in Criminal Sentencing Project at the University of San Francisco School of Law. According to the report, the international legal framework governing retroactive amelioration is explicit and clear: “The major governing human rights treaties allow an offender to benefit from a change in law that imposes a lighter penalty than the one in existence at the time the offense was committed.”

In the report, of 193 countries surveyed, 129 (or 67%) have incorporated some type of provision requiring retroactive implementation of a lesser penalty into their constitution and/or their criminal statutes. Under retroactive ameliorative relief, a law change that eases or eliminates punishments for a specific crime would result in a corresponding amendment to any convictions and sentences for persons already convicted of the crime. Revisions to death penalty statutes provide perhaps the clearest illustrations of the importance of retroactive relief: according to Amanda Solter, Project Director of the USF Human Rights and Criminal Sentencing Reform Project, when the death penalty was repealed in the US states of Connecticut and New Mexico, the change was not made retroactive, leaving prisoners on death row despite a lack of valid legal authority for the state to carry out executions. “South Africa, on the other hand, abolished the death penalty and made it retroactive for 300 to 400 people on Death Row. Russia did the same in the ’90s and commuted the sentences of roughly 700 people.”

China Should Unambiguously Follow Global Norms and Release Prisoners and Increase Transparency

To take a global leadership role in the world, China should avoid such contradictions in its criminal law and unequivocally embrace retroactive ameliorative relief when crimes are removed from applicable criminal justice statutes. This policy stance would involve releasing and/or commuting the sentences of all prisoners confined for committing the long-defunct crimes of counterrevolution and hooliganism. In the event that release or commutation is not granted, the relevant legal authorities should issue a transparent explanation justifying the continued imprisonment under valid and effective criminal law provisions.

General proscriptions against retroactive applications of law should not be an obstacle to recognizing ameliorative relief; in fact, such objections have already been addressed in the applicable international legal provisions. Article 15 of the ICCPR prohibits criminal ex post facto laws but notes the exception that “[i]f, subsequent to the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of a lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby.”

Given the global consensus on this issue, the Chinese government should clarify its policy regarding changes to the criminal law and their effects on prisoners incarcerated for those crimes. In this case, releasing prisoners whose acts of “counterrevolution” or “hooliganism” have been completely decriminalized would send a strong message and bring Chinese law into alignment with the international consensus on this issue.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Resurgence of Big-Character Posters and Switching Tactics of Criminalization

Big character posters were found on Peking University's campus calling for action on sexual assault cases. The posters were removed by authorities. Image credit: Radio Free Asia.

The iconic big-character posters (dazibao) of the 1970s and 1980s are often thought to have lost their purpose in a China now dominated by smartphones and WeChat. Popularized during the Cultural Revolution, big-character posters were used by competing political factions to instigate “mass mobilization.” In the revision to the 1982 Constitution, the right to use big-character posters was removed. During the June Fourth protests of 1989, the posters became ubiquitous when protesters used them to criticize the path of economic reform. In official narratives, authorities used the word fandong (reactionary), implying a hindrance to progress and reform, to describe cases involving big-character posters.

Today, these wall-mounted posters, often handwritten and on a few sheets of paper are used by activists and petitioners seeking to air grievances and direct attention on a range of issues from forced evictions, to government corruption, to wage theft. In some cases, big-character posters allow the disgruntled to circumvent the extensive surveillance and censorship of the internet.

In December 2017, Tianjin dissident Zhang Changhong (张长虹) was sentenced for using big-character posters to call for the rehabilitation of the June Fourth protests. In June 2013, Zhang put up posters at various bus stops and subway stations and in December 2016, he filmed videos of himself in front of his posters, one of which read “Do you know about the Tiananmen Massacre?” He published videos and articles calling on the public not to forget about the bloody suppression. The court accused Zhang of provoking a serious public disturbance for disseminating “fabricated” information and sentenced him to three years and three months’ imprisonment. Zhang is scheduled for release in 2019.

In April 2018, big-character posters appeared on the campus of Peking University. The posters were put up in support for Yue Xin, a female student who sought information from the university about an alleged rape case in the 1990s involving a former professor. Yue wrote online that she had been warned by the school to stop requesting information about the rape case, or risk facing “treason” charges. The posters were promptly removed by the school security personnel.

The following month, during the 120th anniversary of the university, 24 big-character posters briefly appeared on Peking University’s campus. Written by alumnus Fan Liqin, the posters stated that Mao Zedong’s promotion of a personality cult was disastrous for China. Fan warned the Chinese people to be vigilant of history repeating itself under Xi Jinping’s reign, following the removal of presidential term limits and the insertion of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party constitution. Fan was reportedly escorted away by police officers and campus security personnel; he is not known to have received any coercive measures.

Switching Tactics of Criminalization

As big-character posters continue to be used for political purposes, Dui Hua has noticed an increasingly prevalent tactic of criminalization – a shift from charging “reactionaries” caught with big-character posters with inciting subversion to charging them with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” When “endangering state security” was introduced into the 1997 Criminal Law, inciting subversion was frequently used against “reactionaries” who used big-character posters to “vilify” party and senior leaders. In recent years, the term “reactionary” has disappeared from official narratives about petitioners. Instead, petitioners are more likely to be charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” At first glance, this shift seems like a welcome reform as inciting subversion is a more serious crime carrying a harsher sentence than picking quarrels and provoking troubles. However, Dui Hua’s research shows that in cases involving big-character posters, those charged with picking quarrels and provoking troubles can still find themselves serving as harsh of a sentence as those charged with incitement for committing similar acts. The reason behind this shift is unclear, but given the similarity in the harshness of sentencing, perhaps there is an attempt to obscure cases of a political nature that attract scrutiny by putting them into a pocket crime like picking quarrels and provoking troubles. In 2016 alone, China’s public security bureau filed more than 77,000 cases involving picking quarrels and provoking troubles; the scope of acts that count under this crime is indeed obscure, ranging from criticizing local officials on Weibo to drunken assaults.

Incitement Cases involving Big-character Posters

Dui Hua’s library research into government gazettes has uncovered several previously unknown incitement cases involving big-character posters. One of the earliest cases concerns Ding Qingyun (丁青云), a man from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, who was caught putting up “reactionary” big-character posters on three separate occasions. In October 1997, he put up a poster titled “New Tongmenghui Propaganda” at a farmer’s market, signed by the “New Tongmenghui Dantu Township Branch.” Tongmenghui bore the same name as the secret society and underground revolutionary movement founded by Sun Yatsen in 1905 against the Qing Dynasty. Available sources did not provide further information about Ding’s Tongmenghui.

Ding went on to write more “reactionary” slogans in April and May of 1998. In a restroom of the Dantu Township government building, Ding hung up big-characters posters reading: “Down with the Communist Party,” “Down with Socialism,” and “Down with the proletarian dictatorship.” In May 1998, Ding was taken into custody on suspicion of inciting subversion. Although the gazette record did not reveal Ding’s fate, a government response subsequently provided to Dui Hua confirmed that Ding completed his two-year sentence for inciting subversion in May 2000.

Dui Hua previously reported on an incitement case involving Chen Shifu (陈世富), a coffin seller from Hunan who used big-character posters to call on residents to oppose local government policies on property demolition and forced evictions. The prosecution statement claimed that Chen’s big-character posters that called on people to overthrow the CCP and reestablish Kuomintang rule posed a threat to state security. The statement also described the books Chen possessed about Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek as “reactionary.”

The Switch to Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles

Today, those who use big-character posters to criticize the government and party are likely to face the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Dui Hua uncovered a judgment involving a farmer from Shaanxi surnamed Zhang, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in December 2017. On July 1, 2017, the 96th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, Zhang stood in front of a series of big-character posters, which the court judgment later described as “distorting history,” and proceeded to deliver a three-hour long speech that “insulted the party and Chinese leaders.” Zhang had hired someone to film his speech while he delivered it on a busy street in a village in Shaanxi. The court deemed Zhang’s actions as leading to “social disorder” as crowds of onlookers gathered and vehicles stopped in the middle of the street to listen to his speech.

In his speech, Zhang criticized a court decision to side with the township government over a longstanding property dispute. After futile attempts at petitioning, Zhang began pointing fingers at the central government. In 2000, he put up big-character posters calling past and present Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin, “traitors” and their rule “a disaster for the country and ruinous for the Chinese people.” Zhang accused local officials of colluding with mafia groups. His big-character posters made references to the “Tiananmen Massacre” and ridiculed Deng Xiaoping’s “black cat, white cat theory.” In 2005, Zhang was sentenced to one years’ re-education through labor for “insulting” the party and various leaders. After repeated detention and time under re-education through labor, Zhang allegedly refused to repent and continued to put up big-character posters. In December 2017, the court decided that Zhang had persistently refused to show remorse and that his slanderous remarks against the party, senior leaders, and other cadres qualified as a public disturbance. Zhang is scheduled for release in June 2019.

In this case, the court described Zhang’s remarks about the party and leaders as “improper.” The same act would have been tantamount to a “vicious attack on the people’s government,” a phrase commonly used in official narratives about counterrevolution propaganda and former incitement cases such as that of Ding Qingyun’s and Chen Shifu’s. Although Zhang’s big-character posters were as politically charged as that of Ding and Chen’s, the political nature of Zhang’s case was obscured by its categorization under the crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles, most telling is that the sentence he received was as harsh as Ding’s.

Obscuring Political Cases

The latest available statistics from China Law Yearbook shows that 576 individuals were arrested for endangering state security in 2016, a significant drop from 1,105 in 2012. However, this decline is no cause for celebration. As the big-character poster cases show, individuals previously charged with inciting subversion are now more likely to be prosecuted for picking quarrels and provoking troubles. The number of endangering state security cases alone does not give a comprehensive picture of the scale of suppression of dissent in China.

The crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles has long been decried as a pocket crime, meaning that because of its vague definition “anything can be stuffed into it,” after all 77,451 such cases were filed in 2016. Given the enormous variety of acts that can be prosecuted under this charge, it is no easy task to identify which ones are of a political nature. Dui Hua researchers continue to delve into government sources to uncover the names of political prisoners incarcerated for this charge.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mixed Signals in Reports of “Zero Confession” Executions

In 2016, Nie Shubin was exonerated 21 years after his execution. Nie's parents burn a copy of the exculpating court documents near Nie's tomb in Hebei province, December 2016. Image credit: SixthTone.

“Hunan Has Executed its First Criminal in a ‘Zero Confession’ Case; The Female Drug Lord Went to Her Death Refusing to Admit to Drug Trafficking” reads a recent Chinese news headline. The coverage suggests that Yang Kelian—a middle-aged woman with an elementary school education—thought that she could get away with her crimes if she did not confess, but she was nonetheless found guilty and put to death. Dui Hua has uncovered similar recent reports of “zero confession” capital convictions and executions for non-violent drug crimes in Sichuan, Jiangsu, and Hubei.

In a healthy legal system, the presence or absence of a confession does not bear on the fairness and accuracy of judicial proceedings. Sometimes the guilty confess and sometimes they do not; sometimes the innocent insist on their innocence, but sometimes they admit to crimes they did not commit. Unfortunately, in China suspects are often pressured to confess, and face consequences if they do not. In recent years China has embarked on criminal procedure reform aimed at addressing these concerns. Insofar as recent “zero confession” headlines herald a departure from a singular focus on self-incrimination, these reports signal a laudable development. However, upon closer inspection, these cases depict a legal process in which the role of confession remains problematic.

The tone, timing, and facts of these reports on zero confession cases send ambiguous signals about the rights of defendants and the role of evidence in capital cases today. In tone, defendants are portrayed as obstinate or foolhardy in their refusal to admit guilt. With respect to timing, state media tends to report these cases in the run-up to high-profile and heavily politicized anniversaries such as China’s June 26 International Anti-Drug Day. The evidence in these cases is impossible to judge independently, because these verdicts are not being posted online, despite the Supreme People’s Court’s professed commitment to release case documents on its new central database. Altogether, despite invoking improvements in criminal procedure, these reports serve as veiled warnings about the consequences for any criminal suspect who might wish to stay silent.

“Zero Confession”

What is a “zero confession” (零口供) case? In a widely cited 2001 article published in the People’s Procutorial Monthly, criminal law scholar He Jiahong describes “zero confession” as a legal standard used by Chinese law enforcement in deciding whether to pursue prosecution. When a defendant has not confessed, He writes, the procuratorate should view the lack of a confession as having zero or nil confessions—that is, the lack of a confession is indicative of neither guilt nor innocence. The procuratorate should therefore rely on the sufficiency of other evidence in deciding whether to proceed with the case.

While the term zero confession was originally limited to charging decisions, it is now a catch-all term for defendants who do not confess at later stages of adjudication as well. In a zero confession drug trafficking case from Hubei, defendants Long and Hong (both are presumably pseudonyms) did not confess during the trial. And in the case from Hunan, Yang Kelian was convicted and executed without ever making a confession.

The zero confession standard emerged as a response to a Chinese criminal procedure culture in which nearly all cases include confessions and virtually all prosecutions result in convictions. This system has long been criticized for both incentivizing coerced confessions and producing wrongful convictions and wrongful executions. In 2012, China amended its China’s Criminal Procedure Law to better safeguard the rights of criminal defendants and improve the rules of evidence, particularly in capital cases. While the 2012 Amendment (which took effect on January 1, 2013) was a step forward for criminal procedure reform, the language of the Amendment is in some places contradictory, and fails to establish an unambiguous “right to silence” for criminal defendants. The amendment also falls short in establishing rules of exclusion that prevent the introduction of confessions obtained through coercion. In practice, it is widely reported that law enforcement still coerces confessions in many criminal cases, including through the use of torture. In 2008, a grocery shop owner named Nian Bin was sentenced to death for allegedly poisoning his neighbors. Nian claimed he confessed to the crime under the duress of police torture. Years later, Nian’s lawyers proved that the police had fabricated evidence against Nian and withheld information that would have proven his innocence. One of most famous cases of forced confession involving torture and resulting in execution is the case of Nie Shubin. In 1995, Nie was sentenced to death for murder, even after rights groups and fellow inmates argued that Nie’s confession was forced under torture. More than twenty years later it was discovered that Nie was in fact wrongfully convicted when the real perpetrator came forward to admit guilt. In Nian’s case, the Fujian high court upheld the death sentence despite also finding that the case had “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” In Nie’s case the only evidence was the confession he gave under police torture.

A common theme in zero confession case coverage is the sufficiency of evidence in the absence of confession. In this regard, media coverage shines a welcome light on the legal and practical requirements of substantiating a case without the words of the defendant. In the case of Wei and Quan, two defendants from Jiangsu (who are only identified by last names), reports go to great pains to enumerate the evidence: including cell phone records, eye witness testimony, confessions from other defendants, and bank records. Ultimately, this evidence was deemed sufficient to sentence the two people to death for sale and transport of drugs.

Recalcitrant Defendants

Although the term zero confession was originally intended as a value-free description of a defendant’s decision not to confess, state media reports of zero confession convictions universally portray a defendant’s lack of confession as evidence of conniving or bad faith, rather than an assertion of rights or a sincere avowal of innocence. In describing the motivations of defendants in a case from Hunan, the reporter asserts that the two individuals, Long and Hong, believed that so long as they did not confess, they would not be convicted of a crime. Similarly, defendant Yang Kelian is described as thinking that as long as she didn’t confess, she would get away unpunished. In a zero confession case of drug manufacturing in Sichuan, state media reported that a Mr. Liu (full name withheld) was trying to “escape the crackdown of public security agencies. In the face of the interrogation of the police, Liu, a suspect in drug crimes, was not only deaf and mute, but also refused to sign all legal documents.”

Nowhere in this coverage of zero confession cases is it suggested that these defendants have a right to stay silent, or that they might choose to do so because they believe themselves to be innocent. As is often the case in China, neither the condemned nor their representatives are interviewed or quoted in the coverage; in some of the reported cases defendants have already been executed. Reporters based their stories exclusively on law enforcement officials and investigators.

Non-Violent Drug Crimes

Although zero confession cases occur for other types of criminal charges, there appears to be a trend in state media reports that link zero confession cases with capital drug crimes in particular. This trend is likely due to both an underlying rise in capital drug cases and a Chinese state policy to combat drug crimes with harsh punishment.

China has a drug problem. By the country’s own account, drug users, drug cases, and drug seizures have all increased dramatically in recent years. The increasing ease of manufacturing synthetic drugs has also dramatically scaled up drug operations and diffused drug enforcement challenges from border regions into the nation’s interior.

China’s response to the drug epidemic has been to continue a course of punitive measures for narcotics, even as the state has reportedly eased off capital punishment for other types of crimes. Today, four types of drug crimes—manufacturing, trafficking, sale, and smuggling—are eligible for the death penalty in China. It is estimated that drug crimes make up a large portion of China’s annual executions. China is one of a small minority of countries that imposes the death penalty for drug crimes, a practice that violates both international laws and norms (although US President Donald Trump has recently voiced support for executing those convicted of drug crimes).

China does not seem to be moving away from imposing capital punishment for drug offenses. Indeed, state media reports of zero confession convictions reflect not only the underlying phenomenon of capital drug cases, but also state efforts to publicize a crackdown on drugs. Two of the cases highlighted here, from Hubei and Jiangsu, were published in the week leading up to China’s June 26 International Anti-Drug Day. State media traditionally announce harsh punishments for drug offenders during this anniversary. Coverage of zero confession cases seems designed to make a public example of defendants who do not confess. One story about the Yang Kelian case from Hunan sums up, “presently, the number of drug cases is increasing. The quantity of drugs is increasing. Drug networks are becoming increasingly widespread. The age of participants is getting younger. Connecting drug crimes is becoming easier. This case has a deterrent effect.” A story about the Jiangsu case concludes in a similar way, stating that sentencing the two defendants to death “is of great significance for cracking down and preventing drug-related crimes.”

Transparency and Rule of Law

Ultimately the fairness of a conviction in any capital case—regardless of whether a confession is involved—can only be assessed through a public judicial process and a transparent court record. The Supreme People’s Court has made valuable steps in this direction by launching a central website hosting judgments from China’s courts. A review of the documents in zero confession cases is a necessary check on the claims about these cases published in state media.

Dui Hua conducted a search on the central court website for records related to six defendants sentenced to death in four zero confession cases in four different provinces over the last year. Each case was reported in some detail by state media, (although in the cases from Sichuan, Hubei and Jiangsu just the defendants’ surnames or pseudonyms were provided). Dui Hua was able to locate a record related to only one the six defendants, Yang Kelian, the “Female Drug Lord” mentioned at the beginning of this article. That record is from the case of a co-defendant; it is a Hunan High Court second instance trial verdict from 2017 for defendant Chen Wenxin. The record indicates that Chen, who was given a suspended death sentence for drug trafficking, named Yang in a confession he provided to the court. Despite the detailed media accounts of Yang’s case, the judgment in her own case has not been published.

Dui Hua calls on China’s Supreme People’s Court to publish all death penalty case records online. As a first step, the court should consider making public any cases that have been reported in state media. That way, even if those put to death will remain silent forever more, the public may still have the information necessary to make up its own mind about a defendant’s choice not to confess.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

“Illegal Business Activity” and Christian Bookstores

A member of a house church holds a Bible during the Christmas Eve service in an apartment in Beijing on December 24, 2014. Image Credit:

Last month, the Chinese government banned online retailers from selling the Bible on their platforms. Within days after the ban was announced, ecommerce giants Taobao and had removed the book from its websites. In an officially atheist country where stories of religious oppression often make international headlines, many would be surprised to learn that the Bible is a bestseller. In March 2017, more than 160 million Bibles were printed by Nanjing-based Amity Printing – the state-approved company that holds a monopoly on all Bible printing and distribution in China. Approximately sixty percent of Amity’s Bibles are for domestic consumption in state-sanctioned churches where they are sold at an affordable price. Under Chinese law, it is illegal to publish, print, or distribute the Bible without a license, not only at privately-owned bookstores but also state-run chains such as Xinhua Bookstore.

While the number of Christians in China is a contested figure, scholars broadly agree that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the country. The millions of Bibles printed by Amity certainly do not meet the demands of the rising number of Christians. Smaller and independent publishers that are not state-approved have attempted to satisfy the excess demand by either directly importing Bibles and religious texts from overseas or by printing and selling such texts outside of the state-sanctioned churches. Some distribute the materials free of charge, while others seek to make a small profit to support their own churches. Many are subject to imprisonment under the charge of “illegal business activity” – an economic crime said to undermine the socialist market order.

The crime of illegal business activity has also been used against booksellers who sell political books, not necessarily of a religious nature, that are banned in the mainland. A court in Guangdong Province sentenced an American citizen to five years in prison for illegal business activity in 2016. The businessman, Wang Jianmin, published political magazines in Hong Kong of which a small number were distributed in China. The Causeway Bay booksellers – Gui Minhai, Lee Bo, and Lam Wingkee among others – were abducted in Thailand and Hong Kong and brought back to China where they have been investigated for illegal business activity. Gui is currently being held somewhere in China. His legal status is not known.

An early case involving the charge of illegal business activity and Christian booksellers concerns the Beijing-based house church pastor Shi Weihan (石维翰). Shi gave away free Bibles and other devotional texts printed by his private printing company. The texts were not government approved and Shi was consequently detained in November 2007. The police seized over 140,000 unlicensed Bibles and devotional texts and in June 2009 the shareholders and executives of Shi’s printing company were sentenced to one to three years’ imprisonment alongside Shi.

No less sensational is the case of Enyu (lit.: Grace of Rain) bookstore, the first and only Christian bookstore in Taiyuan, Shaanxi, founded by house church leader Ren Lacheng (任拉成). The bookstore sold Christian gift items in addition to traditional print and video offerings. In 2012, Li Wenxi (李文习), who came from a Beijing-based Christian bookstore, provided staff training at Ren’s newly expanded bookstore. The Xiaodian District People’s Court accused the duo of making an illegal profit of 5,460 yuan from the sale of 780 hymnals. In June 2013, Ren was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and Li received a two-year prison sentence for selling books procured from a Guangzhou-based church. Unofficial news sources reported that Li completed his full two-year sentence in December 2014. A judgment Dui Hua discovered online indicated that Ren was released one year early on December 18, 2016, following a sentence reduction granted to him one month before his release.

Taobao and Bibles

Dui Hua has uncovered two related cases involving individuals punished for selling religious texts and items on Taobao, a Chinese ecommerce site – long before the recently announced ban. Shortly after Han X (韩某), a Shandong resident, opened his online bookstore in July 2012, he got in touch with Tu X (屠某), another online Christian bookstore owner in Jilin. For the first three years of operation, Han acquired Bibles and hymnals from other Taobao vendors and sold them to customers nationwide. Payments were made through Alipay, a popular Chinese mobile payment platform. The payment record showed that Tu had sent Han a total of 391,191 yuan between August 9, 2012 and June 29, 2015. In addition to reselling the hymnals acquired from Han, Tu also sold Bibles he acquired from state-sanctioned churches, audio Bibles, and Christian-themed paintings, calendars, and couplets on Taobao. Neither Tu nor Han had obtained a license to operate their online bookstores. The courts found that their online business violated state regulations and the circumstances were grave enough to disrupt the “normal market order,” even though Tu was found to have made a profit of only 15,000 yuan over the three-year period. Tu claimed that he only made a few cents worth of profit from each item sold online. The judgment did not state how much profit Han had made from Taobao, but a local court in Shandong handed down a three-year suspended sentence for the crime of illegal business activity, with a supplemental fine of 80,000 yuan. Tu was given a suspended sentence of two years in Jilin and a fine equal to the entire 15,000 yuan profit he had made.

State-Sanctioned Churches Are No Exception

One would be mistaken to assume that sentences for illegal business activity are generally as lenient as they were for Han and Tu. The case of Li Dongzhe (李东哲) is an example of how severe the punishment for selling religious texts can be, even for members of state-sanctioned churches.

Li Dongzhe is an ethnically Korean pastor who was based at Chaoguang Church, a state-sanctioned church in Liaoning. The church had a small store that sold Christian books, which Li and his wife Piao Shunnan (朴顺南) procured from a Guangzhou-based church. To raise funds for the church, the couple entrusted their church officer to procure over 100,000 copies of Christian books worth approximately 500,000 yuan from Guangzhou. The books were then sold to church members in Liaoning and other provinces at prices 10-20 percent higher than the purchase price, allegedly to cover transportation costs. The church made a profit of 1-2 yuan per book, with a total profit of approximately 60,000 yuan. It was later discovered that the books were printed by a publisher only licensed to process book design and packaging, not to print literature. The book covers were designed by church members, and the books had no author names, place of publication, or ISBNs. Dui Hua has previously reported that Korean Christians, including both South Korean nationals and ethnically Korean Chinese, disproportionately face arbitrary detention and harassment.

As with the other Christians convicted of illegal business activity, the purchase and reselling of unauthorized religious books by Li and his wife were said to constitute a “grave circumstance” and to have “seriously disrupted the market order.” In February 2017, the couple were each sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and are now scheduled for release in May 2023. Three other members of their church were sentenced to three to five years' imprisonment.

Illegal Business Activity Without a Business

The offence of illegal business activity has also been applied to those who give away religious materials for free and those who make just a marginal profit. The standard of conviction for illegal business activity does not require intent to establish a profitable business. Unofficial news media reported that Beijing house church pastor Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) had been interrogated by state security police nearly ninety times before he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in November 2005. Cai was accused of printing over 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian texts. He gave away the texts for free. The Ministry of Public Security called his case the “largest foreign religious infiltration in the history of the People’s Republic of China.”

The judgment for aforementioned Korean pastor Li Dongzhe revealed that his case was first discovered and investigated by guobao (i.e. Internal Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security) in 2016. Guobao probed the church officer’s personal email account and concluded that Li’s church had sold 71,515 copies of illegal books, which the police valued at 291,326.90 yuan.

Dui Hua uncovered a similar case in Shenzhen where two partial-named members of Shenzhen registered churches were convicted of illegal business activity for helping warehouse and deliver more than 200,000 Christian books and 7,000 CDs. The two were given suspended sentences in December 2017, even though the court failed to obtain evidence of them having received any monetary gains.

The Politicization of “Illegal Business Activity”

Prosecutors in China frequently denounce underground Christian bookstores for undermining the “market order.” Market order in China is predicated on a rigid licensing network managed by public security, industry, and commerce bureaus and by a set of stringent administrative rules. By franchising monopolies to Amity Printing and Three-Self churches, the central government can readily control circulation and censor content. Attempts to privately print, distribute, and sell without a license not only constitute an administrative violation but also a criminal offence. In the Taobao case, the bookseller was criminally liable for disrupting the “market order” as he had violated the Publications Management Regulations, an administrative regulation issued by the State Council in December 2001.

The offence of illegal business activity bears striking resemblance to the now-defunct crime of “profiteering,” encoded in 1979 to safeguard state policy and administrative rules against the private businesses that emerged during the reform and opening era. The first illegal publishing case was in Tianjin in 1987, two months following a State Council notice that authorized a crackdown on illegal publishing. The notice called for criminal punishments in publishing cases that had “serious consequences,” even though the 1979 Criminal Law made no reference to publishing as a crime. What followed was that the Supreme People's Court (SPC) deemed the Tianjin case a significant case, in which infringement of the state’s management over publishing and printing constituted profiteering. In the Tianjin case, the defendants were sentenced for compiling and printing criminal law casebooks without a license.

The amended 1997 Criminal Law also makes no reference to publishing as an illegal business activity. The vague clause of “other activities” in Article 225(3) of the law gives authorities the discretion to punish undesirable behavior as defined in interpretations issued by the SPC. To coordinate with the central government to suppress unauthorized publishing following a series of administrative notices issued between 1994 and 1997, the SPC issued a judicial interpretation in December 1998 making illegal publishing criminally punishable under “other illegal business activities.” The interpretation extended criminal liabilities to violators of administrative regulations, allowing authorities to criminalize virtually any unfavorable activity under the guise of disrupting the “market order.”

In the case of Christian bookstores, illegal business activity is disguised as an economic crime that is used to legitimize criminal punishments against religious groups and private individuals operating outside of the state’s control. In the case of Li Dongzhe and the partial-named duo in Shenzhen, all three individuals were connected to registered churches, but that status alone did not protect them from being punished for distributing unlicensed religious materials. While China rebukes criticisms of its religious affairs by stating that its citizens enjoy freedom of religion in accordance with the law, the charge of illegal business activity clearly works alongside the more overtly repressive crimes such as “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.”

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has recorded information on over 1,500 Christians who have been detained or sentenced for either illegal business activity or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law since 1997. Most recently, the Chuxiong Municipality People’s Court in Yunnan tried seven Christians for organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law on April 27 and 28, 2018. The procuratorate accused the Christians of setting up an illegal printing shop in Chuxioing and reading illegal religious books, among other offenses.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Call for Constitutional Review of Custody and Education

Zhu Zhengfu, Vice President of the All-China Lawyers Association and member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Image Credit: Weibo.

In the lead up to this year’s session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), prominent Chinese lawyer, Zhu Zhengfu, called on the NPC to review the constitutionality of the system of custody and education (收容教育). Zhu is the Vice President of the All-China Lawyers Association and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Custody and education is a form of administrative detention designed to punish both sex workers and their clients.

Those who find themselves in one of these centers can be detained for up to two years without judicial process. Similar to previous debates over the system of “re-education through labor,” which was abolished in 2013, calls for the abolition of custody and education have been made ahead of the annual NPC meeting. The detention of well-known Chinese actor Huang Haibo in 2014 for soliciting a sex worker also helped put a spotlight on the coercive measure.

During the 2016 NPC session, Taiwanese delegate Zhang Xiaodong proposed to the NPC, on similar grounds as Zhu, that custody and education be abolished. In this years’ proposal, Zhu emphasized the weak legal basis of the system, specifically citing its inconsistency with the Constitution and the Legislation Law.

As a form of administrative detention, custody and education is exclusively overseen and carried out by public security organs and is beyond the supervision of procuratorates and courts. Public security organs have comprehensive control over the investigation and incarceration process as well as the operation of the custody and education centers, an environment in which abuse of power thrives. The centers were originally created with the goal of educating and rehabilitating sex workers and treating sexually transmitted diseases (STD). The education detainees received was intended to direct them towards other occupations upon release, while the treatment of STDs would help contain ongoing public health issues such as the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

Instead, the centers are often riddled with stories of arbitrary arrests, forced and unpaid labor, and charging detainees fees for their living and medical expenses as well as their rehabilitation treatments. Detainees undergo compulsory testing and treatment for STDs, which they must bear the costs of; many are not informed about the results of their tests or provided adequate counselling. The centers not only violate detainees’ right to health and privacy, but critics argue that they have also been counterproductive at achieving their goal. Detainees frequently return to sex work upon release, having failed to obtain an education, new professional skills, or the health services and counselling needed to protect themselves as they reenter the sex work industry.

Experts estimate that somewhere between 18,000 to 28,000 individuals are sent to custody and education centers each year. From 1987 to 2000, more than 300,000 people had been housed in custody and education centers across China and as of 2014 there were more than 116 custody and education centers in the country.


Discussing the System of Custody and Education

Restricting the Personal Freedoms of Individuals Through Administrative Regulations Goes Against the Spirit of the Constitution

Beijing News (BJ News): Why does your proposal focus on custody and education? What are the current problems with this system?

Zhu Zhengfu (Zhu): The system of custody and education has many facets, including legislation passed at the 1991 National People’s Congress (NPC) Decision on the Strict Prohibition Against Prostitution, the State Council’s Measures on the Custody and Education of Prostitutes and Clients of Prostitutes, and the Ministry of Public Security’s regulations governing the sites of custody and education centers. The thrust of the legislations targets sex workers and their clients. Around the time of 1991, societal conditions were decadent and sex work was on the cusp of spreading. In hindsight, we cannot say that those who hired sex workers were right or wrong. However, following constitutional amendments and the passage of the Legislation Law, problems underlying custody and education’s legislative process, its legislative jurisdiction, and its enforcement began to gradually surface. The main problem is that as an administrative penalty, custody and education can restrict the personal freedoms of an individual from six months up to two years prior to trial and without judicial process before the punishments take effect. In other words, there is no legal defense and no cross-examination of evidence. Long periods of restricting personal freedoms under administrative penalties, without corresponding procedural safeguards, clearly demonstrates that the measure violates [the principle] of procedural fairness.

BJ News: In other words, when you punish by limiting the personal freedoms of an individual, it should not be governed by administrative regulations.

Zhu: Yes, Article 8(5) of the Legislation Law clearly stipulates that coercive measures and penalties that restrict personal freedoms must be governed by law. Article 9 of the Legislation Law also stipulates that if laws have not been formulated regarding this matter [Article 8(5)], the NPC or its Standing Committee can authorize the State Council to formulate administrative regulations, except for when it involves regulations that restrict personal freedoms. However, the 1991 NPC Decision on the Strict Prohibition Against Prostitution authorized the State Council to formulate specific measures for custody and education, which is legally at odds with the Legislation Law.

Besides its inconsistency with the Legislation Law, custody and education also touches on the issue of the inconsistency of legislative jurisdiction. Custody and education is now regarded as a measure carried out by public security organs. Administrative penalties can be appealed and litigated on. The Law on Administrative Penalties covers different types of administrative penalties, however it does not include custody and education. Even as the most serious form of an administrative penalty, the system of custody and education is inconsistent with the Law on Administrative Penalties.

Furthermore, the Criminal Law provides exemption from criminal punishment in cases where there is a sentence of less than two years' imprisonment; in cases involving six-months [or less] criminal detention or control; and in cases where the circumstances are minor, even though the action constitutes a criminal offence. The Criminal Law targets and punishes those who commit criminal offences, however sex work is merely an administrative offence, yet it carries a punishment that is more severe than a criminal offence. In doing so, [custody and education] has disrupted the order set forth by the various measures stipulated in the Criminal Law.

BJ News: You have repeatedly proposed abolishing the system of custody and education at the time of the Two Meetings, why are you so closely committed to ridding this system?

Zhu: In 2003, I joined several members of the Guangdong People’s Consultative Conference and proposed to abolish the system of Re-education Through Labor (RTL); through many calls for action, media spotlight, and several important RTL cases, RTL was finally abolished in 2013. Custody and education and RTL are similar, on a legislative basis they have clear flaws and they both work through administrative organs that enforce punishments to restrict personal freedoms. Thus in 2014, [I proposed to] abolish custody and education, and again in 2016 and 2017.

Prior proposals have all tackled the issue from an abolitionist perspective, this year’s proposal takes a constitutional review angle. In the 19th Party Congress work report, it clearly states the importance of “strengthening the implementation and supervision of the constitution, advancing constitutional review, and maintaining the authority of the constitution.” Because the work report has such a focus on this area and because I believe that the era of conducting constitutional reviews and establishing constitutional authority has come, I made the proposal to conduct a constitutional review of custody and education.

BJ News: There are many vocal supporters of abolishing custody and education. At present, what do you regard as the hardest part in abolishing this system?

Zhu: The hardest part is that [custody and education] has already become an established system that is well-embedded into mutually beneficial relationships; law enforcement organs may believe that the existing system could aid in problem solving – once you get rid of it, you are also removing a tool of law enforcement.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Uncovering the Obscurity of “Educational Placement”

The public sentencing of 55 people in a stadium in Yining, northern Xinjiang province. Image Credit: AP.

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments has uncovered the first known case of “educational placement” (安置教育, anzhi jiaoyu), a measure imposed on prisoners who are considered “a danger to society” even after they have completed their sentences for terrorism or extremism offenses. Educational placement is a new measure included in the Counterterrorism Law which took effect on January 1, 2016. The measure is classified as a subcategory of a criminal case – carrying its own legal codes and procedures, standardized and stipulated by the Supreme People’s Court.

The uncovered judgment states that the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court approved a recommendation from Xinjiang No. 5 Prison to order a Uyghur prisoner from Shache County to be placed in educational placement on August 30, 2017, 18 days before his 10-year prison sentence for inciting splittism was due to expire. The court believed that the prisoner, Ismaili Rozi (伊斯马伊力·如则), continued to pose a threat to society because he “refused to admit guilt during imprisonment, refused to accept education and reform, and was deeply influenced by extreme religious thoughts.” The judgment did not state the length of his educational placement. However, it did indicate that Ismaili had the right to lodge a review of the court order to the Xinjiang High People’s Court within 10 days of receiving it.

At present, information about educational placement exists mostly on paper and how it has been implemented remains largely unclear. Article 30 of the Counterterrorism Law states that it is organized and carried out by provincial-level people’s governments. The measure remains effective until the individual is no longer considered a risk to society by the educational placement institute. The implementation measures issued in Xinjiang on August 1, 2016, provide some details about what the "at-risk" prisoners are obliged to learn once they are committed to the institutes. These include “laws and regulations, ideology and morality, psychological health, modern culture, scientific education, religious orthodoxy and vocational trainings." The implementation measures also state that prisons and detention centers shall submit recommendations for educational placement to the intermediate people's courts six months prior to the scheduled release of the prisoners sentenced for terrorism or extremism offenses.

A few Chinese scholars have spoken out on the custodial nature of educational placement. In an article published in the Jilin Province Law Society Journal in May 2017, legal scholar Xu Chi described the measure as both a coercive and custodial measure aimed to prevent released prisoners from re-offending, and as the most severe existing form of post-imprisonment security punishment. Another legal scholar, Zhou Zhenjie, described educational placement as an extension of a criminal sentence and as a security measure independent of the Criminal Law.

Despite scarcely available information, the first-known judgment about educational placement raises several alarming issues. First, the measure was applied beyond the legal scope stipulated by the Counterterrorism Law. The Counterterrorism Law stipulates that educational placement is applicable only to prisoners sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment for terrorism or extremism offenses. However, Ismaili was sentenced for neither of these offenses, but for inciting splittism, which is a crime of endangering state security. When he was sentenced in 2010, the offenses of extremism did not even exist until five years later when they were codified during the ninth amendment to the Criminal Law. The judgment suggests that the scope of offenses for those serving educational placement is likely much greater than the Counterterrorism Law mandates. Educational placement also creates more risks for the arbitrary denial of rights for political prisoners who have already completed their sentences. Ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, who comprise the majority of the country’s endangering state security prison population, are particularly vulnerable to falling prey to this measure.

Another troubling aspect is that it is unclear when Ismaili's educational placement will end, if ever. The Counterterrorism Law provides no time limit for how long someone can be held in educational placement, meaning that the length of punishment can be indefinite. Xu described it as having “the same punitive effect as fixed-term or life imprisonment.” Zhou does not share Xu’s optimism that an indeterminate punishment could be effective in combating terrorism and extremism. Rather, he expressed concerns that it leaves open the possibility of de facto life imprisonment – an individual can be deprived of their lifelong freedom so long as the educational placement facility considers him or her a risk to society.

Another cause for concern is how prisons and detention centers evaluate the risk levels of soon-to-be released prisoners when they make their initial recommendations to the courts for educational placement. Zhou criticized the procedure for being opaque and opening up risk to the notion that all prisoners convicted of terrorism or extremism offenses are predisposed to being perpetually “at risk.” Although the Counterterrorism Law mandates prisons to “hear opinions from grassroots organizations and organs that initially handled the case,” they have never made public how these opinions are accepted, or even considered, when forming their recommendations. Zhou also questioned how they assessed the impact of prisoner releases on the wider community. Do they conduct interviews and surveys? The evaluation process prisons use to decide whether prisoners should be held in educational placement after serving their sentences is highly subjective, wrote Zhou, and how decisions are reached likely depends more on the current political atmosphere and fears surrounding terrorism in a particular region at a given time than on any real indication of potential threat posed by an individual prisoner.

While Ismaili can appeal the educational placement order to the Xinjiang High People's Court in theory, it remains to be seen how he can go about exercising this right. Zhou wrote that it is unclear whether the appellant is allowed under the current law to entrust a third party to challenge the evaluation conducted by the prisons or detention centers.

Zhou questions what the likelihood is of overturning recommendations made by the educational placement bodies to keep an individual incarcerated. Once admitted, an individual will be released only when the institute no longer considers him or her a threat to society, or when their application to lift the educational placement order has been approved by the court. Zhou remarked that the current law does not provide a clear review procedure. Should the application be submitted directly to the court, or indirectly through the educational placement institute? If it is the latter, the institute may censor applications submitted by those it considers a threat to society.

Two years since its formal introduction, educational placement remains a measure shrouded in secrecy. Whether the measure is applied beyond its legal limits, and whether the evaluation mechanisms and review procedures are fair and transparent are not the only issues emanating from the discovered judgment. As Uyghurs in Xinjiang are disproportionately incarcerated for splittism, terrorism and extremism offenses, they are more likely than Han Chinese and other ethnic groups to bear the brunt of this post-imprisonment measure that could put their personal liberty at risk for life. China should promote judicial transparency by making judgments about its use more readily available on its online platforms.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Despite Tensions, American Attitudes Towards China Improve

Gallup’s annual survey of American attitudes towards foreign countries has been released. It shows that 53 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, versus 45 percent who have an unfavorable view of the country. This marks the first time that the long-running poll has yielded in a majority favorability rating for China since the events of June 1989 nearly 30 years ago.

According to Gallup polling, China's image in the United States has risen 10 points since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party in late 2012.

The result is surprising given rising tensions in the relationship over trade, the South China Sea, and other security concerns, as well as a steady diet of negative news on the human rights front.

The poll also recorded that 11 percent of Americans view China as the greatest threat to the United States, down from 12 percent in 2016. There is significant difference between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with 15 percent of Republicans versus seven percent of Democrats viewing China as the greatest threat to the United States.

The reasons for China’s uptick in popularity are difficult to discern. Given President Trump’s low approval rating, his bashing of China over trade may help actually help China: “The enemy of your enemy is your friend.” According to the RealClear average of polls on President Trump’s handling of foreign policy, 40.4 percent of Americans approve versus 53.6 percent who disapprove.

It might also be that Americans see China as having helped contain North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs by supporting tough sanctions against the regime. The Gallup poll reveals that 92 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of North Korea, while 51 percent see the reclusive state as America’s biggest enemy, up from 16 percent in 2016.

The poll was conducted February 1-10, 2018. It was based on random telephone interviews with 1,044 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of plus/minus four percent.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ban on Islamic Clothing in Xinjiang

Pedestrians walk past propaganda posters in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Image credit: The Uyghur American Association.

In April 2011, France became the first Western country to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public. Similar national and regional bans in other secular Western countries soon followed, including in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada. In Australia, there is ongoing legislative debate on the issue. Under these bans, anybody caught wearing a burka (a veil covering the full face and body) or a niqab (a veil covering the face except the eyes) in public can face fines and in some cases even imprisonment.

China is an officially atheist country. Civil servants and teachers across the country have long been prohibited from participating in religious activities or wearing religious clothing in public. In schools, students can be disqualified from scholarships, government subsidies, attending their graduation ceremonies and even face expulsion if found wearing religious clothing on campus. Around the same time when many in the West were busy passing anti-Islamic legislation, China was rocked by the Urumqi Riots of July 2009. Shortly after, the Xinjiang government began tightening restrictions on Islamic clothing on security grounds in the autonomous region, home to a Muslim population of over 13 million.

In enforcing restrictions on Islamic clothing, Chinese officials have denied that veils are a part of Uyghur culture and have attempted to stigmatize wearers as uneducated and sharing a propensity towards religious extremism. A Phoenix News Media article in 2014 reported that veils had historically never been part of Uyghur culture and only first gained traction in southern Xinjiang in the 1980s. While officials argue that veils are unique to uneducated Uyghurs who share a propensity towards extremism, they also blame religious extremism in Xinjiang as deriving from overseas forces – a line of argument frequently used to justify the forced deportations of overseas Uyghurs. A Uyghur researcher from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Sociology opined that the phenomenon of religious extremism was largely driven by the high and disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment among the Uyghur population. As Xinjiang becomes increasingly dominated by a market-oriented economy run by the Han population, Uyghurs feel they face greater economic, cultural, religious, and political marginalization. The same Uyghur scholar stated that the local Uyghurs’ disillusionment with their future in Xinjiang has led more Uyghur women to adopt the black veil and jilbab in place of their traditional headscarves, especially after the 2009 attacks and the ensuing incidents of ethnic unrest in the region.

Not only has Xinjiang outlawed the wearing of veils in public, but Dui Hua has also uncovered cases of individuals facing criminal charges for wearing veils in their own homes and for selling the banned clothing items.

The “Five Abnormalities”

The restrictions on Islamic clothing in Xinjiang first emerged in a number of localities in province’s southern region. However, after the 2009 Urumqi attacks, similar regulations were implemented in northern Xinjiang. Restrictions in the north remained relatively lax until 2013, when the Xinjiang government issued a provisional-wide directive known as Document No.11. In a question and answer format, the document serves as a set of guidelines for local authorities and as a warning to the public on how “illegal religions and extremism” will be handled; there are three mentions of the ban on the jilbab in the text. The document does not specify what the punishment for wearing a jilbab is. It merely calls on officials to “resolutely handle” violators.

The “Five Abnormalities” in Karamay, Xinjiang. August 2014. Image credit:

It should be noted that the translation of terms used to describe Islamic clothing under Chinese regulations differ from what is generally used in Islamic communities. In August 2014, authorities in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang, banned those wearing Islamic clothing and those with beards from boarding a public bus, including women and girls who were wearing what authorities call a jilbab. In Islamic communities, a jilbab refers to a long and loose-fitting garment or cloak designed to cover the entire body while leaving the face visible, whereas under Chinese regulations they use the word jilbab for what would be considered a burka or a niqab in most Islamic communities, which covers the body and the face. The first category of women shown in the "Five Abnormalities," with veils covering their face and hair but not their eyes, are wearing what would be considered a niqab outside of China, but is called a jilbab in China.

The ban also prohibits young women from wearing what China calls a niqab, a garment that would generally be referred to as a hijab (a headscarf covering the hair and neck while leaving the face visible) in most Islamic communities.

As a provincial-wide directive, Document No.11 has been introduced in localities across Xinjiang. In Karamay, authorities have banned the jilbab, the niqab, all face-covering veils, as well as young men from growing “big beards.” The ban has also outlawed clothes featuring the Islamic star and crescent symbol.

Also in 2013, Xinjiang’s Ili Prefecture issued a provisional rule to proscribe the “five abnormalities” from all public spaces. The 2014 Ili Yearbook reported investigating nearly 1,000 violators and confiscating 7,364 jilbabs and garments with the star and crescent symbol. The following year, the capital of Urumqi followed suit. Instead of using the term jilbab, which opens room for debate about what constitutes a jilbab, the Urumqi regulation has added the more secular-sounding but even vaguer term – “face-masking robes” (蒙面罩袍) – to the Chinese legal lexicon, giving authorities even greater power to determine what garments can be considered illegal.

Effective April 1, 2017, Xinjiang’s “Anti-Extremism Regulations” claimed that the wearing of “face-masking robes” and “abnormal beards” symbolized extremism. The regulations also officially expanded the administrative ban to the entire autonomous region.

The five main categories of Islamic clothing in the Islamic world. Image credit: ABC News

Criminalization of Islamic Clothing

Violators of the aforementioned bans can face criminal prosecution under a number of offenses. One can be prosecuted for “forcing others to wear terrorism, extremism clothes or symbols,” a new offense that carries a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. It was added to the Criminal Law in November 2015 and can be used in cases where violence or coercion is involved. Dui Hua is unable to find online judgments to understand how often this offense is being used by authorities. Unofficial news media has reported on cases of Uyghur women sentenced for promoting the wearing of headscarves, but the exact charges remain unknown.

Dui Hua has found one case where the charge of illegal business activity was used to prosecute an individual for selling banned Islamic clothing. Yang Bao’an (杨宝安), a Han Chinese man who originally migrated to Xinjiang from Hunan, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in April 2015 in Ili Prefecture for selling a hundred niqabs in a shopping center in Korgas (China’s westernmost port bordering Kazakhstan). Twenty-four of the niqabs carried the star and crescent symbol. The court found that Yang violated the “five abnormalities” ban that had been widely enforced in Ili Prefecture. Yang pled innocent on several grounds – 1. He was not aware of the meaning behind the star and crescent symbol; 2. Nobody had purchased any of the garments from him; 3. He did not know about the local rules since he had only just arrived in Xinjiang. Given that he had obtained a university education, the court found that Yang should have been aware and cautious about local regulations and that his actions had adversely affected the social stability of the area.

There is also evidence that wearing banned Islamic clothing can fall under the purview of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” In September 2014, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and the Ministry of Public Security jointly issued a judicial interpretation to expand the applicable scope of this “pocket crime” in cases related to terrorism and extremism. An individual is now punishable for this offense if they disrupt social order by “willfully attacking, chasing, intercepting, and insulting others” while calling others “infidels or religious traitors.”

In March 2015, China Youth Online reported that a court in Kashgar sentenced a group of religious extremists for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The report cited one case in which a Uyghur couple repeatedly refused to comply with “Project Beauty," a campaign to discourage men from keeping long beards and women from wearing veils and headscarves. The husband was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for “ignoring the national law.” Not only was he punished for keeping a long beard, but he was also punished for encouraging his wife to wear a veil. As his wife was said to have shown remorse, she was given a relatively lenient two-year imprisonment sentence. The original report was removed the day after it was originally posted. An anonymous source who proclaimed to have written the article allegedly sent an apology statement via WeChat for misreporting the case. Critics remain skeptical of its authenticity, with some suspecting that the apology was made under duress. The article has since been widely circulated online and remains accessible on official news websites.

Banning Islamic Clothing in the Home

Although the ban on Islamic clothing has been enforced in the name of “maintaining public order,” Dui Hua has found cases where authorities in Xinjiang have enforced the ban in people’s homes.

Dui Hua uncovered a judgment in which a Muslim man, Gong Xiaojun (龚小军, ethnicity unknown), was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for "disrupting official business" in Urumqi after arguing with community cadres in December 2014. When the community cadres paid Gong a home visit in June 2014, they found that Gong had grown an “abnormal beard.” The cadres admonished Gong for his beard and Gong allegedly responded with “extreme language” insisting that he grew the beard because he simply liked the way it looked.

The cadres informed Gong and his wife about the ban on “black religious clothing,” and accused his wife of wearing a jilbab. Gong argued that his wife was wearing a long loose black robe, not what the cadres were calling a jilbab and that the cadres had no right to intervene in what his family chose to wear at home. He claimed that he had requested his wife to wear the robe and his wife agreed that she had done so voluntarily. Gong was first indicted for "picking quarrels and provoking troubles," but was convicted of a different charge – "disrupting official business." The judgment did not explain in what ways Gong’s language was “extreme,” it only vaguely stated that his language was “extreme” and provocative enough to disrupt law enforcement.

Beyond Xinjiang

For Muslims who belong to China’s Hui minority, reports suggest that they currently do not face the same intensity of restrictions as Muslims in Xinjiang do. In a propaganda film entitled Leaving Heart in Hezhou (情定河州) about China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the Hui women of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province are portrayed in long black garments covering their bodies, hair, and necks. While the same clothes are banned in public and private spaces in Xinjiang and violators can face imprisonment, in Linxia, also known as “China’s Little Mecca,” Hui women are currently free to wear veils in public. However, given the growing restrictions on religious freedom in Linxia, the question remains for how long this freedom will last.

Xinjiang's ban on Islamic clothing is no less controversial than the anti-Islamic legislation we see in the West and is no less discriminatory to Muslims. Since joining the global ranks of countries that impose restrictions on the appearance of its Muslim citizens, China has been under fire by human rights groups for intruding on its citizens’ religious freedoms. Although transparency of criminal cases involving the ban on Islamic clothing leaves much to be desired in Xinjiang, given what we know about how the sellers of Islamic clothing and those who wear Islamic clothing in their homes have fared, it is likely that those caught wearing Islamic clothing in public are facing increasing risks.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dui Hua Book Review: The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances. Image Credit: RSDLMonitor.Com

Dui Hua examines the stories of dissidents held under the coercive measure “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances (Safeguard Defenders, 2017).

As the waves of repression in China have intensified over the past decade, one encounters the strange phrase “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) with greater frequency.

It was memorably employed (though by no means for the first time) against the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, after the publication of “Charter 08” in December 2008. Later, it was used in the crackdown against the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in the spring of 2011. Most recently, it has been a prominent feature of the ongoing crackdown against rights lawyers and activists that began in July 2015.

This measure, with its relatively benign-sounding name, has been examined critically before, both inside and outside China. The new book The People’s Republic of the Disappeared makes an important contribution to this critique by collecting vivid accounts from those who have been subjected to the measure. Together, these accounts paint a damning portrait of how Chinese law enforcement agents are using the power they have been given under the law to violate human rights with impunity in the name of safeguarding state security.


What exactly is RSDL? At first glance, it looks like it might be a form of house arrest, although “designated location” suggests that it might involve something other than being confined in one’s own home. “Surveillance” only adds to the mystery, suggesting some sort of monitoring without making exactly clear how intrusive it might be.

In China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is what’s known as a “coercive measure.” Simply put, coercive measures authorize law enforcement agents to restrict a person’s liberty in the course of a criminal investigation. The degree and duration of that restriction depends on a variety of factors, but coercive measures are meant to serve a rather limited set of aims: preventing suspects from posing further threats to society or obstructing the investigation process and ensuring their availability to face questioning or stand trial. Coercive measures are not meant to be punitive or to be used as tools of investigation in their own right.

In Chinese criminal procedure, “residential surveillance” exists alongside other coercive measures such as custodial detention (seen as the most restrictive measure) and “release on guarantee pending further investigation” (qubao houshen, which is much less restrictive). The ordinary form of residential surveillance—which, as the name suggests, permits suspects to remain in their homes under certain restrictions—is a relatively lenient, non-custodial measure. For that reason, the CPL allows it to be imposed for up to six months.

Six months spent under house arrest is no picnic, but it is likely to be a more comfortable experience than being sent to a detention center. For this reason, reformers have promoted the greater use of non-custodial measures like residential surveillance as a way of reducing overuse of custodial detention.


The book features eleven accounts, all but one of them presented in the first-person, from lawyers and political activists who were subjected to RSDL or similar measures between 2011 and 2016. These include well-known human rights lawyers, such as Tang Jitian, Liu Shihui, Sui Muqing, and Wang Yu. It also includes an account by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist detained in 2016 for his connection with some of these lawyers and activists. Though each account is distinct, the victims’ experiences under RSDL share some key features. It is difficult to ignore how the measure of RSDL has become an integral part of a systematic regime used by authorities to target particular individuals.

Though regulations require that the locations used for RSDL “possess conditions for ordinary living and rest,” it is clear from these accounts that disruption of routine daily activities is key to how the system operates. Sleep deprivation and the withholding of food and personal hygiene products are common practice. Detainees are cut off from communication with family, friends, and lawyers. Guards and interrogators use humiliation, enforced discipline, physical and verbal abuse, and threats to friends and family members. Family members of victims are also subject to varying degrees of surveillance, including house arrest, such as in the case of Wang Yu’s family. International law recognizes family members of victims of enforced disappearances as full victims.

The victims’ accounts of confinement and interrogation becomes at times indistinguishable, since most detainees are subjected to questioning in the same place they are held—contrary to the provisions of RSDL. Invisible, alone, and at the mercy of guards and investigators who act with impunity, it is unsurprising that, in almost every case included in this book, involuntary confession is what brings the ordeal to an end.

Lawyer Liu Shihui, who describes his 2011 confinement under RSDL, calls the measure “a system designed for prisoners of conscience [and] a place designed for torture.” Time and torment essentially ensure that any resistance gives way to capitulation. However, some accounts reveal that even in their acts of forced “confessions”, victims attempt to resist the abuse of state power. For example, lawyer Sui Muqing recounts the importance he placed in maintaining a degree of personal integrity and dignity by refusing to incriminate others in his confession.

In reading these accounts one cannot escape the recurring sense that authorities use the brutal conditions of confinement in RSDL for the purpose of obtaining these confessions—the veracity and voluntariness of which does not necessarily matter. In this sense, one can certainly see how useful investigators would find RSDL—especially as a tool in sweeping crackdowns with multiple, linked suspects. Even if, as in most of the cases in this book, confessions do not lead to direct criminal prosecution, the authorities can still use them against other suspects. And by recording and broadcasting these forced confessions, the authorities can attempt to bring public discredit on both the individuals and the causes they promoted.

Beyond confessions, the brutal confinement of RSDL constitutes a form of punishment in itself, especially when stretched to its six-month limit. Even the mere existence of RSDL seems designed to spread fear, and threat of its use can be enough, in some cases, to achieve the desired outcome.


Of course, no matter how well RSDL might serve the aims of the Chinese authorities in terms of maintaining stability and political control, it doesn’t justify the use of torture and many other violations of individual human rights that it enables. Liu Shihui’s judgment that RSDL is a “place where law doesn’t exist” is amply backed up by the other accounts in this book.

The similarities in these accounts unquestionably demonstrate a pattern of abuse. Yet, there may still be some who will claim that these stories are exceptional and do not represent the entirety of RSDL. For every instance of abuse under RSDL, there are sure to be examples in which the measure is being used in more benign ways. Even if these cases are exceptional, this is precisely why RSDL is so insidious. By labeling these acts a form of “residential surveillance,” Chinese authorities are engaged in a deliberate effort to obscure their use of torture and enforced disappearance. Through publishing these accounts, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared is attempting to shatter the veneer behind which these severe violations have tried to hide and expose them for the world to see. And given that the accounts are diverse in both the time frames and geographical regions they represent, it is unlikely that they are simply exceptional cases. The accounts come from two separate sweeps, one carried out in 2011 and the other in 2015-2016 and they take place across four distinct locations: Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Changsha.

Of all the people who should read this book, which has also recently been released in Chinese, it can only be hoped that it will be read by all of the Chinese academic legal experts who have been so instrumental in directing the reform of China’s criminal justice system. In the past, many of these experts had publicly criticized the ways Chinese investigators used residential surveillance. Yet these same experts stood by and even defended the inclusion of RSDL measures in the most recent revision to the CPL, rejecting predictions that the measure would be abused. In a perfect world, this book would prod their consciences and, in the name of human rights and rule of law, lead these influential experts to turn their efforts to stopping the outrageous abuses exercised under RSDL.