Wednesday, August 29, 2018

“All Criminal Defendants to Have Lawyers”: Is Access to Defense Lawyers Enough in a System Designed Against Defendants? (Part 2 of 2)


Dr. Tan Qindong, detained for three months in Guangdong, found himself at the center of a major conflict of interest story in Chinese media. Image source: Caixin.

In “‘All Criminal Defendants to Have Lawyers:’ Is Access to Defense Lawyers Enough in a System Designed Against Defendants? (Part 1 of 2),” Dui Hua analyzed shortcomings in the pilot projects including their failure to address the role of defense counsel in pre-trial contexts and the overemphasis on measuring success by coverage rather than quality of defense. In Part 2, Dui Hua looks at a how a failure to embrace principles such as conflict of interest and clear commitment to public resources and accountability mechanisms are barriers that reformers must also consider.

Conflict of Interest

The presence of lawyers who are free from conflict of interest is key to a well-functioning criminal justice system. Recent cases illustrate that this principle has yet to be fully embraced in China’s criminal justice system. In January 2018, Guangzhou doctor Tan Qindong was arrested for writing online that in “his scientific opinion” the popular Chinese tonic liquor made by the Hongmao Liquor Company “appeared to be quack medicine, and a potential ‘poison’ for many retirees who drink it every day.” Hongmao is considered the backbone of the economy in Liangcheng County in Inner Mongolia, where the liquor is produced. Inner Mongolia police officers traveled more than 1,700 miles to arrest Tan in Guangzhou for his statements made online. The police later recommended that Tan’s wife, hire an attorney. Unbeknownst to her, the lawyer had previously served as Hongmao’s in-house legal counsel (falü guwen). The attorney advised Tan to admit guilt and to refrain from speaking to the media. Following heavy media attention and public outcry, Tan was released in April 2018. Professor Wang Yong of China University of Political Science and Law described the case as an overreach of power reflecting the influence of the Hongmao Liquor Company on the Inner Mongolia legal authorities.

Yin Chuji was investigated in 2016 for handling cases as a defense attorney while also serving as a Hunan Taojiang Party official. Source: ifeng.

In Hunan, Yin Chuji, was investigated in 2016 for simultaneously serving as a defense attorney at a Changsha law firm as well as a deputy party secretary of the Hunan Taojiang Political-Legal Commission. Yin reportedly handled more than eighty cases over a six-year period while holding both positions. In Beijing, Wang Hongguang, a former presiding Supreme People’s Court judge of the second civil division, was imprisoned in a case suggesting serious conflict of interest. The case was reported on WeChat. Wang allegedly accepted payments to influence the outcome of cases. In 2017, Beijing Dongcheng People’s Court found Wang guilty of accepting bribes. Wang’s appeal was rejected in 2018. As reformers seek to create a more robust system of defense counsels in China, efforts must also be made to address corruption and bias in the court room.

Funding for Defense Counsels

Another shortcoming of the pilot projects is adequate funding - critical for defense counsels who are expected to perform an array of functions. As a Congressional Executive Commission on China report points out, legal aid centers have “insufficient funding and eligibility restrictions continue to seriously limit accessibility to legal aid.” Local officials in Bao’an and Henan have acknowledged the varying duties defense counsels must perform, from obtaining case files and drafting briefs to applying for bail and other changes to coercive measures. However, the national regulations on the criminal defense pilot projects do not specify which government actors or units are responsible for ensuring the project’s funding.

Media outlets have stated that in some cases subsidies are provided for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. The pilot project regulations on funding are complex, leaving a series of bureaucratic loopholes for local officials looking to cut funding for criminal defense counsel. For example, Article 9 states that defendants should bear the costs of a publicly funded defense lawyer and that any cost sharing can be determined by provincial level judicial-administrative branches based on the regions local economic development, average residents’ income, and case-handling subsidy allowance standards. Article 7 and 8 states that the responsibility for providing funding for defense attorneys in criminal cases is shared among local jurisdictions, with unspecified “areas with means” (you tiaojian de difang) relied upon to voluntarily shoulder the cost burden in different ways, including establishing a criminal defense lawyer pool to develop the criminal defense counsel pilot projects and launching government procurement of legal aid services. A clear commitment to public resources would bolster the capacity of defense counsels to perform these specialized tasks.

Sources of Accountability

Another troubling pattern has emerged in the implementation of the pilot projects – it is unclear which bodies of government are responsible for the projects. Different municipalities and provinces seem to have their own opinion on which bodies are responsible for project implementation. In some projects, party units are entrusted with carrying out the projects, even though the national regulations on the pilot projects were launched by the Ministry of Justice. In some projects, the implementation is carried out by government offices or by provincial justice bureaus and courts. In Hebei province, which was not among the pilot project jurisdictions initially selected, neither the courts nor justice bureau has been involved in the project implementation. Instead it is the party or the government office that is overseeing the implementation. In Henan province, among the first to launch its pilot project in 2016, the provincial justice ministry is the project implementer “throughout the province and in selected areas,” with plans to expand the project to 91 county-level localities.

The presence of a justice ministry bureau as the project implementer does not automatically mean the projects are better informed. For example, in the E’zhou prefecture of Hubei province, the pilot project was subsumed under a larger project of combating organized crime, with only a cursory mention of the criminal defense counsel pilot project.

Meetings on “Full Coverage” of Defense Counsel for All Criminal Defendants in China

Jurisdiction Body Managing Pilot Projects Reported Date Official Pilot Project location Under Article 26 Regulations? Status of Defense Counsel Pilot Projects
Bao’an District, Shenzhen, Guangdong Bao’an courts and Bao’an Justice Bureau June 2018 Yes Achievement of “complete criminal defense coverage” in Bao’an District
Guangzhou, Guangdong Guangzhou courts and Guangzhou Justice Bureau May 2018 Yes Implementation of local regulations
Henan province Henan Justice Bureau June 2018 Yes Implementation of local regulations
Wujin District, Changzhou Jiangsu Wujin Court and Wujin Justice Bureau May 2018 No Complete criminal defense coverage underway
Hebei province Henan Party General Office and Henan Government General Office June 2018 No Criminal defense reform is part of a broader anti-crime agenda
E'zhou, Hubei province E'zhou Justice Bureau May 2018 No City Ministry of Justice unit advances criminal defense reform as part of a broader anti-crime agenda

As these defense counsel pilot projects take shape across the country, precise guidelines on funding and identifying responsible actors are crucial. To understand the future implications of not doing so, the Chinese government’s needs to look no further than what has happened in the last fifty years in the U.S. In the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, the court unanimously announced that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution “guarantees to every criminal defendant in a felony trial the right to a lawyer.” As Justice Hugo Black wrote, “any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”

Fifty years later, much of Gideon’s promise remains a myth. The resources necessary to maintain high standards for the pro bono defense bar have been largely gutted; states are incentivized to cut funding and have many tools at their disposal to do so. Remuneration for public defenders has been capped in some states; in others, defendants must jump through various bureaucratic hoops to see a lawyer. In many jurisdictions, unqualified defense attorneys are the norm. To avoid the pitfalls of Gideon’s promise, Chinese authorities would benefit from making a long-term investment in their defense counsels.

The defense counsel pilot projects are a step towards enhancing the protection of human rights in China. It is encouraging to see that provinces beyond the eight localities originally selected are also carrying out their own versions of the pilot projects, including in Jiangsu, Hubei, and Hebei provinces. However, there are obstacles that still need to be addressed, including providing better pre-trial defense, ensuring defense lawyers are free from conflicts of interest, and clarifying the funding sources and accountability mechanisms for defense counsels. As localities move ahead with expanding defense counsel appointments in criminal cases, courts and local units of the Justice Ministry should take the lead in implementing these reforms as the state institutions responsible for processing criminal cases. Limiting the role of party officials in the pilot project would safeguard defendants and minimize bias in court.

“All Criminal Defendants to Have Lawyers”: Is Access to Defense Lawyers Enough in a System Designed Against Defendants? (Part 1 of 2)


Guangdong Department of Justice Notice given to defense lawyer Sui Muqing, claiming Sui was in violation of court rules; Sui's license to practice was revoked by Guangdong authorities. Image credit: HKFP.

In January 2018, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) announced that “all criminal defendants are to have defense lawyers.” Pilot projects in various provinces across China have since launched with this goal in mind. Official media reports boast 100% defense counsels assigned to criminal cases in certain pilot project localities. At first glance, these results are impressive considering public defenders have historically been provided in only 30% of criminal cases in China. Increased access to defense lawyers should ensure the rights of defendants are upheld, however the relationship is not always automatic. Access to defense is effective so long as lawyers have the right tools at their disposal to represent their clients. Dui Hua analyzes shortcomings in the pilot projects including their failure to address the role of defense counsel in pre-trial contexts and the overemphasis on measuring success by coverage rather than quality of defense. Additionally, basic principles such as conflict of interest and identifying clear sources of funding and accountability mechanisms are obstacles that reformers have yet to address in their attempts to institutionalize a more robust defense counsel.

“All Criminal Defendants to Have Lawyers”

The eight provinces and municipalities selected to participate in the pilot projects are Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Anhui, Henan, Guangdong, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Senior officials have praised the projects as “serving as a well of experience for further national expansion and as a vehicle to uphold human rights and to avoid miscarriages of justice.” The regulations on the pilot projects outline procedural guidelines for expanding access to defense counsel to all criminal cases, including setting three days as the maximum amount of time that courts can take to inform defendants that they have the right to retain a lawyer and the right to receive legal assistance. The regulations also call on courts to directly provide legal aid centers with information regarding the defendant’s case.

Defense lawyers are not new to China’s criminal justice system. China’s Criminal Procedure Law mandates compulsory defense counsel for mentally ill persons and juveniles and provides guidance on scenarios in which courts should request legal aid centers to appoint a defense lawyer. Legal aid centers were nationalized in 2003 under State Council regulations and in 2017 the “Regulations on Legal Aid” fine-tuned the provisions for criminal cases stipulating defense lawyers for those incompetent to stand trial and those facing the death penalty.

Pretrial Defense

In Shenzhen, the Bao'an District Court and the Bao'an Justice Bureau announced that they had achieved their goal of assigning defense lawyers to every criminal defendant in April 2018. Bao'an officials applauded the establishment of a “green channel” (lüse tongdao) to streamline “delivery to defendant of the indictment, the court’s issuing notice to the defense, and the legal aid center assigning counsel to defendant.” In Jiangsu Province, the Wujin District of Changzhou applauded the pilot projects installation of a legal help window and a legal aid center inside its Litigation Service Hall. While focusing heavily on increased courtroom defense representation, these pilot projects fail to address questions of pretrial legal assistance. It is common for defendants to encounter difficulty meeting their lawyers once coercive measures are placed on them. In cases involving endangering state security, lawyers face obstacles in accessing evidence and escaping pressure from authorities to drop cases.

One of the lawyers implicated in the “709” crackdown in 2015, Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), was barred from seeing his family and the lawyers hired by his family during his three years in custody. On the afternoon of July 12, 2018, Wang’s lawyer was finally able to meet with him at the Tianjin No.1 Detention Center. Wang’s trial date has yet to be announced. Activist Zhang Liumao (张六毛), was detained for picking quarrels and provoking troubles on August 15, 2015 and later arrested for subversion. He died in Guangzhou No.3 Detention Centre on November 4, 2015. Police restricted Zhang’s lawyer from meeting with him because the case was considered “anti-Party” and “anti-China.” Two weeks after Zhang’s death, his family and lawyer discovered bruises on his corpse, prompting suspicion that Zhang had been tortured to death. Wang and Zhang’s cases exemplify the injustice that can result when criminal suspects are restricted from meeting their lawyers before trial.

Following the “709” crackdown, administrative penalties such as suspension or revocation of legal licenses have become commonplace tactics to retaliate against lawyers and law firms that take on sensitive cases. For example, Wang Quanzhang has so far had seven different lawyers assigned to his case. One of Wang’s lawyers was disbarred in 2017 during an annual review overseen by the party-controlled local lawyers' associations and justice bureaus. In the spring of 2018, another lawyer, who had served as Wang's counsel for two years, was barred from renewing his practicing license. In the case of Huang Qi (黄琦), the webmaster of the legal rights website 64 Tianwang, authorities in Guangdong revoked his defense lawyer Sui Muqing’s license to practice. During an interview with Hong Kong Free Press, Sui claimed that “I'm afraid the reason is that I've represented clients in too many human rights cases – the things I've said about my cases cannot be tolerated by the party.”

In cases deemed to threaten “social stability,” defense lawyers are often handpicked by authorities seeking to control the outcome of the case. This practice raises questions about whether the rights of the accused can be fairly represented by lawyers who are not of their client’s choosing. In November 2016, after being detained for 16 months, Xie Yang (谢阳), another disappeared lawyer, was finally granted access to two lawyers he had appointed. However, after exposing the torture Xie endured while in detention, both lawyers were dismissed from the case in April 2017. Xie allegedly voluntarily appointed He Xiaodian to take over the case before it was heard in May 2017, however Xie’s family argues that he was coerced into appointing He. In the same month, Xie appeared on state television where he denied torture claims and confessed to being “brainwashed” by overseas groups. On December 26, 2017, Xie was convicted of inciting subversion but was exempted from criminal punishment.

Liu Zhengqing and Huang Qi’s mother outside the Mianyang Detention Center. Image credit: Radio Free Asia.

In a healthy criminal justice system, lawyers are given adequate time to examine evidence before a case is tried. Although Article 38 of the Criminal Procedure Law grants defense counsels the right to access evidence, in practice defense lawyers face a myriad of obstacles, particularly in cases involving “state secrets.” In February 2018, lawyer Liu Zhengqing, who took over Huang Qi's case from disbarred defense lawyer Sui Muiqing, said that his request to photocopy evidence was turned down by the Mianyang Intermediate People's Court because it contained “top secret” state secrets. The so-called state secrets reportedly concerned a document issued by a local neighborhood committee about the handling of a petitioner’s complaint. Li Jinglin, another one of Huang’s defense lawyers, also claimed that his appointment to examine evidence on October 12, 2017, was cancelled because the prosecutors were allegedly busy reporting the endangering state security case to authorities in Chengdu. In February 2018, Li's request to examine evidence was again rejected, this time because the judge claimed he “had no time” to deal with the matter.

Procedural Violations During Trial

Increased courtroom representation does not necessarily guarantee the right to a fair trial. In cases concerning social stability, the role of defense lawyers is often for show – as presiding judges routinely side with prosecutors and frequently interrupt the arguments of defense counsels. In his defense of prominent activist Yang Maodong (杨茂东), also known as Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Zhang Lei reported that he had been repeatedly interrupted after questioning the court’s jurisdiction over the case. Yang was charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu District after leading a demonstration in support of the newspaper The Southern Weekend. To no avail, Zhang argued that the case should not have been investigated and tried in Tianhe District. Defending Sun Desheng (孙德胜), who was tried in the same case as Yang, Chen Jinxue also claimed that the presiding judge lacked impartiality and repeatedly interrupted the defense’s statements.

Zhang Lei also spoke about the difficulty of summoning witnesses to Yang’s trial. The court refused to issue subpoenas to witnesses and the day before trial, three key witnesses were either coerced into “traveling” or kidnapped by authorities. In a case involving a Three-Self Church pastor sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for fraud and a public order offense, the Nan Le County People’s Court refused the defense lawyer’s request to summon witnesses to testify in defense of Pastor Zhang Shaojie (张少杰). One of the witnesses was taken to a “black jail,” an extra-judicial detention facility.

Rights lawyer Wang Yu outside the San He City Court. Image credit: Radio Free Asia.

Rights lawyers who criticize violations of procedural justice in court also face the risk of being expelled or disbarred. In July 2015, rights lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) was representing a Falun Gong practitioner in Hebei when he was expelled and forcibly removed from court after pointing out procedural violations. The court neglected to send Wang a notice of appearance as a defense attorney before the case was heard and the court turned down Wang’s request to adjourn the trial after her client suffered a heart attack in the courtroom. The presiding judge continued to hear the multi-defendant case involving other Falun Gong practitioners and decided to only reschedule the trial for Wang’s client. Wang objected to the judge’s decision, insisting that all the defendants should be heard together in an adjourned trial. The court subsequently issued an order to expel Wang from the courtroom; court guards violently removed Wang.

Not only has the offense of “disrupting courtroom order” been used as an excuse to expel lawyers from trial and to disbar them from practicing, but the offense also has the potential to imprison lawyers who challenge procedural violations during trial. Deriving from the ninth amendment to the Criminal Law in 2015, the offence has a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The offence conspicuously targets lawyers who complain about procedural violations in cases involving social stability. Xie Yang was one of the first ones indicted for this offence in December 2016. The indictment states that Xie “slapped the table, insulted the judge and instigated claimants” in the courtroom to protest the judge’s decision to expel two other lawyers entrusted in the same eviction compensation lawsuit against a local government. Although Xie was eventually not found guilty of “disrupting courtroom order,” the offence continues to discourage lawyers from speaking out against procedural violations in court.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Arbitrary Classification of State Secrets


China’s national broadcasting station CCTV airs Gao Yu’s confession of “illegally procuring/trafficking in state secrets for foreign entities,” blurring out her face but disclosing her full name.

In China, transparency on endangering state security (ESS) cases is low in many respects. China Law Yearbook, an official judicial compendium that publishes judicial statistics, states that 4,818 individuals were indicted for ESS crimes during the four-year period from 2011-2014. In recent years, China Law Yearbook has obscured this information by counting ESS cases under the category of “others.” Dui Hua estimates that more than 1,000 individuals have been indicted every year for ESS crimes since 2015.

There are 12 offences categorized under ESS. China has never disclosed a breakdown showing how many cases or individuals were arrested, indicted, tried or sentenced under each of these 12 offences, which include subversion, splittism, incitement, espionage, and illegally procuring/trafficking in state secrets for foreign entities. Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on 779 individuals incarcerated for ESS crimes during 2011-2017.

Dui Hua has found that a substantial portion of ESS judgments disclosed online by courts concern the crime of illegally procuring/trafficking in state secrets for foreign entities, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of death. These judgments generally provide little information about the background of defendants or the nature of the illegally acquired secrets. Only a few judgments provide specifics about the cases. Some defendants were sentenced for taking photos of troops, vessels, and air force equipment. Some judgments concern individuals who allegedly provided state secrets to Taiwanese, U.S. or other foreign agents in exchange for financial compensation.

Every country has its reasons for guarding state secrets, but in China the offence has been frequently applied to regulate academic research, curb free speech, and suppress criticisms about party policy in the name of state security. Article 10 of the Law on Guarding State Secrets classifies state secrets into three levels: top secret (绝密), secret (机密), and confidential (秘密). What counts as a state secret and who is considered a foreign entity? The cases below illustrate that the classification system can be highly problematic, and the application of the offence can run counter to international norms, trumping individual rights of expression under the guise of safeguarding state security.

“Top Secret” State Secrets

The Law on Guarding State Secrets defines “top secret” as the highest level of state secrets; divulging such information is said to cause “extremely serious harm to state security and national interests.” In Dui Hua’s PPDB there are two cases involving the June Fourth protests and top secrets. Sympathetic to the protests, Fan Baolin (范宝琳) obtained six top secret documents in 1999 in his capacity as a state security cadre in Shaanxi. The documents revealed Beijing’s refusal to let exiled Chinese democracy activists return to China. Fan sent the documents to the Federation for a Democratic China, a group founded in Paris following the crackdown in 1989, which advocates for the democratization of China. In February 2001, Fan was sentenced to life imprisonment for illegally procuring state secrets for foreign entities. His imprisonment was not known by any human rights groups until 2007, when Zhao Changqing (赵常青) disclosed Fan’s case after completing his five years’ sentence in the same Weinan Prison for inciting subversion. Fan was imprisoned for a total of 17 years and was released on November 2, 2016, following multiple sentence reductions.

The case of Shi Tao (师涛) received extensive international media coverage when the journalist was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for using a Yahoo! Mail account to send top secrets to a New York-based, Chinese language website. In April 2004, Shi attended a staff meeting where a memo issued by the Central Propaganda Department about stability maintenance ahead of the 15th anniversary of the June Fourth protests was discussed. The memo covered restrictions on media coverage about June Fourth, Falun Gong, and mass protests. Prosecutors accused Shi of taking detailed notes about the memo and sending them to “overseas hostile forces” under the name of “198964”, despite him “knowing full well that recording and dissemination were strictly prohibited.”

Prominent dissident Huang Qi (黄琦) is currently incarcerated for allegedly sharing a top secret report issued by a local neighborhood committee in Mianyang, Sichuan, on his 64 Tianwang website. With the help of like-minded volunteers, Huang founded the website to provide legal assistance and information to vulnerable groups. According to several volunteers, police investigating the case claimed 64 Tianwang was a “hostile foreign website” created to “spread negative news about China.” The so-called top secrets concerned a report covering the government’s handling of petitions lodged by Chen Tianmao (陈天茂), also a 64 Tianwang volunteer, who photographed the report for Huang. Pu Wenqing, Huang Qi's mother, questioned why a petitioner report would be classified as top secret and claimed the offence was trumped up since the report did not even bear a “secrets” stamp or an official seal.

“Secret” State Secrets

"Secret" information refers to important state secrets, the leakage of which is said to cause "serious harm to the state." Rights lawyer Zheng Enchong (郑恩宠) was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for sending two documents by fax to the New York-based organization Human Rights in China (HRIC). The Shanghai Secrecy Bureau found that one of the documents contained "secrets" while the other was considered “confidential.” The secret information referred to a manuscript Zheng had compiled about police handling of a protest that broke out at a food factory in Shanghai in May 2003. Zheng was found guilty even though neither of the two faxes were actually received by HRIC due to technical errors; nor had HRIC sought to disclose information about the documents.

In a relatively recent case, journalist Gao Yu (高瑜) was sentenced on November 26, 2015 to five years’ imprisonment for illegally providing secrets to Mirror Media Group, a Chinese news outlet based in the U.S. The charge stemmed from her acquisition of "Document No.9," a warning to Chinese Communist Party members about the “seven perils.” The seven perils included the promotion of historical nihilism and Western values such as democracy, free press, and judicial independence. The full text of Document No.9 was shared online, garnering a total of 26,197 views as of April 28, 2014, according to the judgment handed down by the Beijing No.3 People’s Court. Due in part to her poor health and international outcry, Gao was allowed to serve her sentence outside prison. Her sentence will expire on April 23, 2019.

“Confidential” State Secrets

Although “confidential” is the lowest level of state secrets, individuals providing more than three “confidential secrets” to foreign entities can still face lengthy sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. U.S. citizen Xue Feng (薛锋) was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in July 2010 for obtaining 15 geological reports classified as “intelligence” and acquiring an oil industry database classified as “confidential” on behalf of his employer, a U.S. consultancy company. The database contained information about the coordinates of more than 30,000 oil wells, each of which was “confidential” even though oil well coordinates are research data generally made public in countries other than China. Of the oil wells, 2,000 of them were either located outside of China or were already widely known. Dui Hua raised Xue's case with Chinese officials and urged the U.S. government to step up efforts to secure Xue's better treatment and early release. In November 2012, Xue was granted a 10-month sentence reduction. He was deported on the day he was released, April 3, 2015.

While the case of Xue Feng casts a spotlight on the danger of doing business in China, academics also face similar risks. Dui Hua has previously reported on the case of Xu Zerong (徐泽荣), a historian sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for sending photocopies of books about the Korean War, published in the 1950s, to a South Korean scholar. Unbeknownst to Xu, the books remained classified as “top secret,” even though their secrecy status should have been declassified upon the expiry of the 30-year secrecy period as stipulated by Article 15 of the Law on Guarding State Secrets.

An early case Dui Hua uncovered involved two individuals in Fujian who were sentenced to 5-10 years’ imprisonment for mailing “secret,” “confidential,” and “neibu” (i.e. internal) books to a university library in Hong Kong. The prosecutors claimed the duo illegally procured library materials in China starting in 1995 in exchange for financial compensation from the Hong Kong library. The “confidential” books covered statistical materials on broadcasting and civil administration in Hebei, which are now widely available in both Hong Kong and mainland libraries. The “secret” information referred to books published in the 1960s about the Sino-Soviet and Mongolian borders and books published in the early 2000s about Chongqing’s public security bureau and its anti-gang campaigns. The first defendant was released in September 2010 following two sentence reductions totaling 32 months; the second defendant completed his full five years’ sentence in May 2008.

Arbitrary Application

State secrets are matters that have a vital bearing on state security and national interests and are entrusted to only a limited number of people for a given period of time in accordance with proper legal procedures. The regulations governing the handling of state secrets in Chinese courts are not well understood. Dui Hua has previously reported that entire criminal cases may be classified as secret from the police investigation stage onward, based solely on the politically sensitive nature of the alleged criminal activities at play, and that this classification holds over when the case is tried in court. In the aforementioned cases, it is questionable how the defendants’ actions put China’s state security at risk. Zheng Enchong's defense lawyers claim the offence was misapplied because Zheng only recorded ordinary social news – ranging from a small peaceful protest by factory workers to a demolition jointly carried out by government officials and business corporations. Zheng’s accounts have no obvious connection to state security.

Similarly, it is hard to imagine why a document issued by a local neighborhood committee concerning a petitioner’s complaint could be classed as “top secret,” as in the case of Huang Qi. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Huang's mother stated that “if it were really a top secret document, the staff members [allowing Chen Tianmao to photograph] should have been detained too... They have set a trap for Huang Qi...” Huang’s defense lawyer, Li Jinglin, remarked that Huang would very likely be sentenced even though the state secret charge against him had no basis.

Several Chinese legal scholars and practitioners have cast doubt on the labeling of Document No. 9 as a “secret.” Scholar Zhang Xuezhong argued that to avoid arbitrary application, courts should be required to identify and quantify the harm inflicted on state security and national interest. He remarked that a party document should not be seen as a state secret since the ruling party is obliged to make its policies and governing philosophy public so that party members can monitor and evaluate their performance. Even if a document discloses party secrets, party members only receive disciplinary, not criminal, punishment. Gao should not have received any form of punishment because she has never been a party member.

Scholar He Bing argued that Gao is innocent on the basis that the information in Document No. 9 was already disclosed by official news media outlets that warned party members to remain vigilant about the infiltration of aspects of Western ideology, dubbed the “seven perils.” These reports came out months before Document No. 9 was circulated online in August 2013. Prominent dissident Bao Tong called it “ridiculous” to treat Document No. 9 as a state secret – as it relates neither to military affairs nor commerce, but an instruction of “ideological control” given by a political party.

The two cases relating to Fujian and Guangdong academics illustrate the question of the expiration periods imposed on state secrets. In finding the scholars guilty, the courts’ decision ran counter to the Law on Guarding State Secrets, which provides that a state secret shall be automatically declassified upon the expiration of the period guarding it. The secrecy period of “top secrets” shall not exceed 30 years, whereas the time limit for “secrets” and “confidential” secrets is 20 years and 10 years, respectively. Nonetheless, Xu Zerong and the duo in Fujian were found guilty although the acquired materials had technically been “declassified” at the time of their detention.

In January 2018, Swedish national Gui Minhai (桂民海) made international headlines again after he was snatched by Chinese agents on board a train to Beijing while accompanied by two Swedish diplomats. Gui was reportedly detained for the problematic offence of illegally procuring state secrets for foreign entities. The level of state secrets involved in the case remains unclear. In a televised confession in February, Gui claimed he had been manipulated by Sweden as a “chess piece” to cause trouble for China. Given Gui’s past involvement in Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong bookstore which sold titles about Chinese leaders, there are reasons to believe the charge is political and Gui’s statement at the government-arranged interview was coerced.

The cases above reveal the problematic nature of the offence of “illegally procuring/trafficking in state secrets for foreign entities.” Not only is there a lack of transparency in the classification system of state secrets, there is also a great deal of evidence that the offence is being used to curb individual rights of expression under the guise of safeguarding state security. The offence has been arbitrarily used to silence dissidents, rights lawyers, journalists, and academics and to cover up events like June Fourth protests.