Thursday, May 28, 2020

Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part I

China’s anti-cult propaganda likens Falun Gong and Almighty God to drugs, superstition, and pseudoscience. Image credit: The Paper

A cult is a social group characterized by its unconventional, sometimes controversial religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. In the United States, mainstream culture and religious leaders consider violent acts such as murder, suicide, and bodily harm as important factors when designating a social group as a cult. Most liberal democracies do not have legislation against cults because any attempt to do so is believed to run counter to freedom of religion enshrined in their constitutions. In China, however, a group can be designated as a cult because its politics and potential to mobilize people are considered threats to Communist Party rule. 

Since coming into force in 1997, Article 300 of the Criminal Law—“using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law”—has frequently been used to criminalize non-mainstream religious groups. Observers have long viewed religious persecution as being widespread in China, but they have been unable to quantify the precise extent of the crackdown because reliable figures are not available. 

Published by China’s Supreme People’s Court at the end of 2018, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 contains extensive information on trials of Article 300 offenses, including statistical breakdowns of sentencing, gender, and defendants’ occupation. These statistics have revealed that over 23,000 cult cases were accepted and over 40,000 people were tried during an 18-year period beginning in 1998. 

This is the latest article in a series based on Dui Hua’s research into Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016. Previous posts have explored the decline in juvenile convictions, Hong Kong-related cases, and Taiwan-related cases.

What were the cult cases?

The Criminal Law does not provide an explicit and detailed definition of cult organizations. Back in 1995, the Central Committee, State Council, and Ministry of Public Security identified 14 religious groups (12 Christian and two seemingly Buddhist) as cult organizations. In 2014, the China Anti-Cult Association compiled another list of 20 cult organizations (16 Christian, three quasi-Buddhist, and one qigong). These lists are not exhaustive because local authorities across China have exercised broad discretion to designate numerous religious groups as “cults” even though they have not been named on the aforementioned cult lists.

Replacing the former religious crime of “organizing or using a sect or feudal superstition to carry out counterrevolution activities” in 1997, Article 300 began to be used extensively after the Chinese government designated Falun Gong as an “evil cult” in 1999. Before the nationwide repression began, tens of thousands of practitioners could be seen meditating in parks and public squares all over China. Chinese courts began filing the bulk of cult cases a year after Falun Gong was outlawed. The number of people brought to trial skyrocketed from 864 in 2000 to almost 3,000 in 2001. The country recorded its first peak of cult cases in 2002; 3,315 people were brought to first-instance trials. 

The second peak took place in 2008; the reasons are not entirely clear. It could be that China ratcheted up stability maintenance in the run up to the Olympics in Beijing. Falun Gong practitioners joined forces with international activists to boycott the Olympic torch relay over China’s extensive human rights violations. Chinese state media called Falun Gong one of the three forces seeking to sabotage the Olympics alongside the East Turkestan and Tibetan independence movements. 

The court statistics do not fully reflect the extent of the cult crackdown because they omit a large but unknown number of people whose personal liberties were deprived without any legal procedure. Among these measures are people who are placed in “legal education classes,” which have been used in China for two decades. This measure provides local authorities with a highly flexible means of dealing with individuals who engage in behavior that is viewed as socially disruptive but does not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution or public-order punishment.

The court statistics also exclude tens of thousands of cult offenders who were sent to re-education through labor (RTL) campsUnder RTL, individuals could be detained and subjected to forced labor for up to three years, extendable for another year, for the vaguely defined conduct of “disrupting social order” on the decision of the public security organs alone. During the 2009 China session of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, the Chinese government confirmed the existence of 320 RTL facilities with approximately 190,000 inmates, down from 500,000 inmates in 310 RTL facilities in 2005. At the end of 2012, the Ministry of Justice claimed that the number of RTL inmates further decreased to 50,000 from across 351 RTL facilities nationwide. 

Despite these limitations, the statistics offer a glimpse of how China invoked its criminal justice process to crack down on religion. The surge of cult cases in 2013 warranted particular attention. Compared to 2012, the number of people who stood trial in 2013 doubled to 2,942. There were two main reasons:
  1. RTL was abolished in 2013. Cult offenders who were previously sent to RTL are now more likely to face imprisonment sentences.

    People in Gansu Province on December 11, 2012 carry a banner warning that Almighty God is coming to save believers and destroy the people and nations that resist. Image credit: Global Times

  2. China’s sweeping clampdown on Almighty God began in late December 2012. Identified by the Chinese government as a cult organization in 1995, the quasi-Christian group claims that Jesus was reincarnated as a Chinese woman and calls on members to slay the Chinese Communist Party, which they call the “great red dragon.” It joined the chorus of voices spreading rumors of an impending apocalypse, which predicted that the sun would cease to shine and electricity would stop working for three days beginning on December 21, 2012. Prior to the “doomsday,” group members spread the rumors at public venues and by going door-to-door, and they held demonstrations across China which were put down with force.  

    The Chinese press had published very little about Almighty God before 2012, but the demonstrations in that year became the catalyst for China’s propaganda offensive against the sect. Just ahead of the “doomsday,” public security detained 1,300 Almighty God members across 16 provinces, with the majority of them in Qinghai and Guizhou. In 2014, China Daily reported the arrests of another batch of 800 Almighty God members in Ningxia over the previous two years. 
The highest peak of cult cases occurred in 2015: 2,764 cases and 4,582 defendants. This peak coincided with the amendment to the Criminal Law which turned Article 300 into a crime with the possibility of life in prison (up from a fixed-term imprisonment sentence of 15 years). In that year, China intensified its propaganda offensive against Almighty God and sentenced two members who allegedly killed a woman in a McDonald’s restaurant to death.

It is worth noting that the surge of cult cases in 2015 was attributed largely to ethnic minorities. Except for 2015, ethnic minorities typically accounted for a few dozen to over a hundred defendants each year from 2000-2016. Evidence suggests that Falun Gong, Almighty God, and other unconventional Christian sects have made inroads with a small number of Hui, who are traditionally Muslims. With a strong base in northeast China, Falun Gong is also known to have converted a number of Manchus, ethnic Koreans, and Mongols. More research is needed to examine why the number of ethnic minorities surged to 1,082 in 2015. It remains unclear who these ethnic groups were and what happened to them in that year. 

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments also uncovered cult cases concerning lesser-known unconventional religious groups, including the Three Grades of Servants (三班仆人), Society of Disciples (门徒会), Spirit Sect (灵灵教), Blood of the Holy Spirit (血水圣灵), Lord God Sect (主神教), Full Scope Church (全范围教会), Shouters (呼喊派), and the quasi-Buddhist group Guanyin Famen (观音法门). However, Falun Gong and Almighty God continue to account for the majority of cult cases. Violence is rarely involved in cases involving these organizations.

Over one-third were women
From 2010-2016, women accounted for five to seven percent of defendants in all criminal cases. However, they are disproportionately represented in cult cases tried. The court records indicated that women made up 41 percent of all the 28,497 cult defendants during the 18-year period. In the 2000s, the number of female defendants ranged from 400 to 800 each year, but it doubled in just one year after the state crackdown on Almighty God commenced in December 2012. About 2,600 women stood trial within two years since 2015.

China’s anti-cult propaganda says that women in cult cases are typically middle aged and “left-behind” by husbands (留守妇女) who migrated from rural regions to cities for employment or to conduct business for an extended period. It often makes sexist claims that women are “weak-willed and psychologically vulnerable, with a propensity to succumb to coercion or monetary enticements from cult organizations” because many of them have a low level of education. 

Statistics are given about the defendants’ occupational background, but it is unclear how many workers, farmers, and other occupations were women. The statistics indicated that 35 percent of all cult defendants were farmers or migrant workers, and slightly less than one-third were unemployed. Only 7.5 percent of all the defendants were classified as employed or laid-off workers, and another 7.5 percent were retired. 

Although China’s anti-cult propaganda tends to describe women as passive victims in cult cases, they are known to have taken a leading role in several religious groups outlawed by the Chinese government. For instance, Guanyin Famen (观音法门) was founded by Vietnam-born Chinese Shi Qinghai in 1988 and introduced to China around 1992. It appears to be the largest of the three Buddhist-sounding groups banned by China (read The “Cult of Buddha” for a more in-depth discussion). Shi, who is residing overseas, continues to attract members in China despite the state ban that has been in place for almost three decades. 

Many China-based Guanyin Famen leaders are women. Although the number of publicized cases has decreased sharply in recent years, Dui Hua continues to uncover new cases related to this sect. In September 2019, a local court in Shaanxi sentenced Guo Huiling (郭会玲) to 18 months’ imprisonment. Guo, a leading member in charge of recruiting members in Baoji, was apprehended by public security while distributing Guanyin Famen pamphlet cards in March 2019. The “cult” books, posters, cassette tapes, and CD-ROMs found by public security in her home became the evidence for conviction. 

Women have likewise played a leading role in several other homegrown religious groups which emerged relatively recently in the 2010s. Combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, Chinese folklore, and superstitious practices, these groups have never been mentioned on the different lists of cults compiled by the Chinese government. Their leaders also received lengthy sentences for Article 300.
Zheng Hui, founder of the Milky Way Federation, promoted the use of alien energy to become Buddha. Image credit: Sohu

Among these groups are the Milky Way Federation (银河联邦), which was established in 2012 by Zheng Hui (郑辉). Zheng resigned from her job and created a website dedicated to promoting a belief she learned from a group in Germany, which China views as an apocalyptic religious cult. Zheng combined concepts of Buddhism with her belief that extra-terrestrial beings exist. Proclaiming herself to be the female Gautama Buddha, Zheng intended to awaken humankind in her envisioned “Buddha kingdom.” Her group allegedly had over 4,000 members from across China. In July 2015, Zheng was sentenced to eight years in prison under Article 300 in Nanning, Guangxi.
Zhongtian Zhengfa is a Buddhist-sounding religious group co-founded by self-proclaimed reincarnated mother Buddha Chen Yunxiu. Despite propaganda presenting women as passive victims in cult cases, Chen has played a leading role in an organization designated as a cult. Image credit: Sina Blog

Bizarre as it may sound, syncretic religious groups similar to the Milky Way Federation appear to have gained popularity in other provinces. Alongside her husband, Chen Yunxiu (陈云秀) founded Zhongtian Zhengfa (中天正法) in 2010 and called herself the reincarnated mother Buddha, Nüwa (the mother goddess in Chinese mythology), and Saint Mary. Zhang said that conversion to her sect would be the only way to obtain salvation. Zheng was sentenced in Shandong to seven years’ imprisonment for Article 300 in 2018. The court judgment indicated that her group had over 900 members from different provinces.

Part II, which will be published next week, examines the different forms of punishment meted out to those convicted under Article 300, analyzes trends in sentencing, and explores post-2016 developments concerning cult cases.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Observations in Death Penalty Cases in China

Du Shaoping in court. Image Credit: Haibao News

As the world’s leading executioner, China’s death penalty law has long been scrutinized by scholars, policy makers, and human rights groups. The subject matter garners an outsized level of international attention when the cases involve foreigners. Robert Schellenberg’s case serves as a recent, highly visible example: Schellenberg is a Canadian sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and his case has seemingly been thrust into the tit-for-tat of international politics. Ironically, this increased attention comes amid a decades-long decline in the overall use of the death penalty in China

It has been over a year since Schellenberg appealed his death sentence to the Liaoning High People’s Court in January 2019. The court appears to be delaying the judgment in order to seek leverage over the case of Meng Wanzhou. International politics are clearly at play in Schellenberg’s case, but it must be noted that delayed judgments are not uncommon in capital cases involving Chinese citizens. In some cases, defendants have waited as long as 600 days between first and second instance trials; in a rare case, 900 days elapsed before the final review by the Supreme People's Court (SPC).

The length of time between trials, SPC reviews, and execution varies case by case. It is also possible for the SPC to expeditiously approve death sentences within a month after the sentences were handed down at first-instance trials. The cases below display some disparities in this application:

  • The Beijing High People’s Court upheld the death sentence of Sun Wenbin 29 days after the Beijing No.3 Intermediate People’s Court handed down the judgment on January 16, 2020. Sun was found guilty of intentional homicide for stabbing a doctor at a Beijing hospital in December 2019. The SPC approved the death sentence on March 17, 2020, slightly over a month after the appellate ruling was made. The period from Sun’s criminal detention to his execution on April 3, 2020 lasted 101 days. 
  • In another case, Du Shaoping was found guilty of intentional homicide and other crimes by a court in Huaihua, Hunan, sentenced to death, and executed in January 2020. The alleged crime of him killing and burying a teacher in a school yard, which took place in 2003, was said to be instigated by disputes over a schoolyard construction project. While 16 years passed between the crime and Du’s trial hearing on December 17, 2019, judicial proceedings were more expeditious. Du was executed on January 20, 2020, meaning that the period from his first trial to the SPC approval of his conviction and sentencing lasted 30 days. Four days elapsed between the SPC’s approval and his execution. 

Understanding of how China applies the death penalty is largely lacking. To better understand these conflicting trends, Dui Hua has conducted an updated analysis of trends in the length of time between trial and execution in China’s death penalty cases. Longer times between sentence and execution could indicate a more deliberate judicial approach that allows for meaningful review of the evidence supporting a conviction and death sentence, and it also provides a window for intervention from higher courts and others to stop executions and correct wrongly decided cases.

This article examines possible trends in sentencing and execution in order to discern attitudes and practices towards the application of the death penalty. First, this article presents new statistical data on the length of time between sentence and execution using Dui Hua’s Death Penalty Log. It then provides a paired comparison of a very quick (less than 60 days) and a very deliberate (more than 2 years) death penalty appellate review, which can assist in developing an understanding of the factors that tend to be associated with a longer judicial deliberation between trial and execution.

A Look at the Numbers: Time from Trial to Final SPC Approval of Execution

In the United States, the term “death row” is part of the common lexicon, perhaps owing to the extended delay between the investigation, trial, appeal, and execution of condemned prisoners. By contrast, there has been little need for a term like “death row” in China because there has not historically been an extended period between trial and execution, and capital offenders are rarely sent to prison before execution. In China, capital offenders stay in detention centers after they are sentenced, or when appeals to a higher-level court or approvals from Supreme People’s Court are pending.

However, as the SPC has reclaimed its authority over the review and final approval of death sentences, times between trial and sentencing have begun to lengthen and vary. Although the complete abolition of the death penalty should be the ultimate goal from a human rights perspective, understanding how and why delays of execution occur is nonetheless an important element of understanding whether China engages in the deliberation necessary to limit injustice in death penalty cases.

Dui Hua has recently compiled the following information regarding the time between trial and execution in death penalty cases in China: from 2015 to 2019, Dui Hua recorded 1,247 first-instance trials involving the death penalty; of those, there were 460 known second instance trials, and 261 known SPC reviews of those trials. Table 1 below provides a summary of average lengths of time between adjudication and final SPC death penalty review.1

Table 1. Length of Time in Days Between Adjudication and Final SPC Judgment in Death Penalty Cases
Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation
Of the 261 SPC reviews, 239 death sentences were approved (91.6 percent), and 24 were not approved (9.2 percent). While these data provide a sense of the average delays between death penalty trial and execution, Figure 1 provides a more detailed understanding of how many cases involve significant appellate deliberation. 

Figure 1. Number of Death Penalty Cases, Sorted by Days Between First Instance Trial to Final SPC Decision
Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation
In approximately half of the cases, the time between first instance death penalty trial and SPC review is between six months to a year. On the other hand, in more than half of cases, the period from trial to SPC review took longer than a year; of those, nearly 33 percent took longer than one and a half years. Interestingly, a very small number of cases landed on opposite ends of the spectrum – only three cases took less than 182 days to review, and only 10 took longer than 730 days. 

To better understand what factors lead to longer time windows between trial and execution, the next part provides a more in depth look at two cases, one from each end of the spectrum. While these two cases are outliers – one was particularly quick while the other was noticeably drawn out – they provide insight into factors affecting the duration of judicial proceedings in death penalty cases.

Yang Zanyun and the “9-12” Attack
A photograph of Yang Zanyun from a court proceeding related to his mass killing case. Image Credit: Hunan People's Court
On one end of the spectrum is a high-profile mass killing that featured a highly expeditious SPC review in which the period from initial trial to execution lasted only 48 days (December 12, 2018-January 29, 2019). This case involved an attack carried out in Hunan province by Yang Zanyun (阳赞云), who drove a car into a crowd in September 12, 2018, killing 15 people.

Yang was convicted of the crime of “endangering public safety using dangerous methods”; however, a more accurate contemporary translation of the crime would probably be “mass killing” or even terrorism (media articles branded the case the “9-12” attack). According to Xinhua, Yang drove a Land Rover into a crowd of people at Mijiang Square in Hunan before exiting his vehicle and attacking more people with a knife and a shovel. In addition to those killed, Yang also injured 43 others. Unsurprisingly, as one of the most heinous mass killings in China’s history, the case drew strong public response, with more than 300 people attending the proceedings held at the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court in December 2018.

A little over one month later, the Hunan High People’s Court announced on its WeChat account that the Hengyang Intermediate People’s Court carried out Yang’s execution on January 29, 2019, in accordance with a final SPC death penalty order.

Another negative factor that likely contributed to Yang’s execution was his long criminal history. According to Reuters, Yang had previous convictions for “selling drugs, theft and attacking people, which caused him to harbor a desire for ‘revenge on society.’”

Ma Gongxian and the Land Dispute Homicide

By contrast, a recent homicide case has led to a much longer judicial review process. The defendant in this case, Ma Gongxian (马攻先), was convicted of intentional homicide for stabbing a family member to death as part of a dispute over land rights in Qingdao, Shandong province. 

The case arose out of long simmering tensions between Ma Gongxian and his younger brother, Ma Huixian, with respect to a 16-mu (approximately two-and-a-half-acre) piece of real estate. In October 2015, tensions boiled over when Ma Gongxian confronted Ma Huixian regarding a building that Ma Huixian was constructing on the disputed land. While the exact details remain somewhat unclear, at some point Ma Gongxian wielded a large knife and stabbed and killed Zhao Jufang, Ma Huixian’s wife. Ma Gongxian was then attacked with rocks by others at the scene and taken to the hospital.

According to the report, Ma Gongxian was arrested in the hospital, and the Qingdao Procuratorate charged him with intentional homicide. The Qingdao Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to death with immediate execution in October 2016, but despite the judgment calling for the immediate implementation of the death penalty verdict, Ma was allowed to appeal the sentence. The Shandong High Court heard the case on June 8, 2017, and Ma Gongxian presented a complex court defense in which he admitted to killing the victim but claimed that his actions amounted to negligent, rather than intentional, homicide. The defendant was 69 years old at the time of the crime. As of November 2019, the Shandong High Court reportedly upheld the judgement, and the SPC approved the death sentence, meaning that the execution likely took place soon after the final SPC approval. 

In the small village in Shandong where the crime took place, however, the execution sentence was met with opposition. During Ma Gongxian’s appellate hearing, nearly a hundred villagers from Ma Gongxian’s village went to the Shandong High Court, expressing opposition to Ma Gongxian’s death sentence and saying that “the crime should not lead to death” (罪不致死, zui bu zhi si). The defense also noted that Ma did not have a history of committing crimes, a point that seems to have been accepted by the criminal judicial officials.

Assuming that Ma’s death sentence was carried out in November 2019, the execution would have taken place approximately three years after the start of the first-instance trial in October 2016, making this case much longer than the average time from trial to SPC death penalty approval.

Toward a List of Factors that Impact Length of SPC Review

Although no conclusions can be definitively made from only two cases, the major differences between the two cases might illuminate some of the factors upon which to assess Chinese judicial review of death penalty cases and, in a broader sense, human rights in China. The differences in the Yang Zanyun and Ma Gongxian cases include the following elements:

  • number of deaths (overall severity of the crime)
  • public versus private dispute
  • social pressure
  • complicated criminal defenses
  • previous criminal history

Clearly, Yang’s crimes were particularly heinous and attracted international media attention. His crimes resulted in a substantial threat to social stability, which might have pressured higher courts and the SPC to approve the death penalty quickly. These factors are absent in the Ma Gongxian case that involved the murder of a single individual amidst a family dispute that was not a threat to spill into other corners of society. These factors can be considered in addition to other governmental or political factors involving ongoing counter-terrorist policies and or other campaigns noted previously by Dui Hua. 

It is also interesting to note that Ma Gongxian’s case led to substantial delays perhaps in part because he was able to present a complex criminal defense. Although it might be a positive sign that Ma’s defense strategy was able to produce a more deliberate judicial response, it also might call into question whether criminal defendants with financial means to pay defense lawyers might be able to more successfully challenge their sentences, with poorer defendants more likely to face unjust execution. 

While these factors are by no means an exhaustive or definitive list of factors influencing appellate review in these two cases, they offer a perspective into a legal system that is notorious for its low acquittal rate and lack of transparency. The insights gleaned from these cases and available statistics can help inform the ongoing conversation about how judicial review occurs and how human rights might be protected in China. 

As the coronavirus pandemic upends proceedings, China has vowed not to delay justice in the midst of the outbreak. Such promises have raised concerns that procedural justice may suffer as a result, especially in capital cases, where the review process already faces transparency issues.

1 Of all of the death penalty cases for which statistics are provided, only a small number are reported on in the media or in other public forums; at times, some cases are reported in the media that are not yet included in statistical accounts

Thursday, April 9, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part II

In China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I, Dui Hua discussed Taiwan-related cases of endangering state security as well as alleged espionage charges involving Taiwanese and Chinese nationals. Part II, the latest entry in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, looks at foreign nationals accused of Taiwan-related espionage before examining the political implications of select cases and events.

Taiwan resident Lee Ming-cheh and Chinese national Peng Yuhua were sentenced to five and seven years in prison, respectively, for subversion by the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court on November 28, 2017. Image Credit: Sina News
From Taiwan’s breakaway in 1949 until the early 1990s, Taiwan and China were engaged in intense “psychological warfare,” and Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat to China in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981. Ma Ying-jeou’s ascension to the Taiwanese presidency in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-strait relations. 

Dui Hua has noted discrepancies between public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases and the court statistics (which are detailed in Part I). A possible reason for such discrepancies between the court statistics and cases reported in news media sources is the murky definition of “Taiwan-related” in the court records. Regardless, these discrepancies suggest that either the court statistics do not take into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the concept of Taiwanese espionage is inflated or used opportunistically. 

Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included Taiwan residents, Chinese nationals, and even US citizens and green card holders when labelling a case as Taiwanese espionage. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage.” Among the “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. The PPDB has information on 81 Chinese nationals who were sentenced for Taiwanese espionage from 1998-2016.

Foreign nationals

An alleged case of Taiwanese espionage can also involve Chinese-born foreign nationals, but it is unclear whether these cases are classified as Taiwan-related in the court statistics. 

One such case is that of US citizen Li Shaomin (李少民), who was accused of working for a Taiwanese NGO that Beijing said was a spy agency. When asked to substantiate the charge against him, a presiding judge only presented a one-page memo from the state ministry that wrote, “We verify that this alliance is a spy agency.” Li was ordered to be deported after the case was decided in half an hour on July 14, 2001. 

Also convicted in the same year were US permanent residents Gao Zhan (高瞻) and Qin Guangguang (覃光广). Although they were both sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting intelligence for Taiwan, they were released days ahead of a visit to Beijing by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

The second US citizen charged with spying for Taiwan was Dong Wei (董维), who received a sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment in April 2004. Dong was taken into custody in Guangzhou on September 28, 2003, while on a trade delegation, and accused of lobbying the US government on Taiwan’s behalf. Dong was released in September 2012 after his sentence was reduced by a total of four years. 

The clemency given to them was made possible largely due to improved US-China relations in the early 2000s. Both countries started cultivating regular high-level visits and exchanges of working level officials, resumed military-to-military relations, cooperated on counter-terrorism initiatives, and worked closely to restrain North Korea’s nuclear activities. Dui Hua lobbied for the release of Li Shaomin and Dong Wei. 


Every country has its reasons for developing counter-espionage networks, but in China charges of endangering state security (ESS) are often used against dissidents. For instance, US permanent resident Wang Bingzhang (王炳章) has been serving his life sentence for espionage and “organizing and leading a terrorist group” for almost two decades since his detainment in 2002. According to the judgment, Wang collected and provided military secrets for Taiwan. Wang, however, is also a well-known political dissident who founded two political parties, which are banned in China, and a pro-democracy magazine critical of the Communist Party. 

Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong (程翔) was also charged with spying for Taiwan. Observers believe that he faced reprisal for attempting to obtain a manuscript copy of interviews with Zhao Ziyang, the late reformist icon of the Communist Party who was placed under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005. In 2006, Cheong, a veteran journalist, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Beijing. He was released in early 2008 after spending 1,000 days in prison.

China’s overarching national security objectives and arbitrary classification of state secrets also call into question allegations concerning espionage. This issue can be demonstrated in the following two Taiwanese espionage cases:
  1. Long Jianbin (龙建斌) was sentenced in 2009 to five years’ imprisonment for Taiwanese espionage in Zhuzhou, Hunan. The official account charges Long with collecting information about leadership changes and political, military, and economic developments for someone he “should have known” was a Taiwanese agent. 

    Long’s conviction stemmed in part from government inaction. After taking on initial assignments, Long reported what he had done to relevant government bodies, perhaps concerned that he had gotten involved in illegal matters. Receiving no reply from the government, however, Long continued to collect materials, many of which appear to have been publicly available. The so-called internal publications that Long collected, such as Dispatches from the General Office of the Communist Party of China, contain articles that can be freely viewed online.

  2. Dui Hua’s research into online judgments uncovered the case of Li Quansong (李权松), a Chinese national who was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years’ imprisonment in Shantou, Guangdong, for illegally trafficking in and providing state-secrets for Taiwan. The allegations against Li included collecting two dozen files of state secrets, which were obtained at least partly by taking photos of the Shantou naval dock and vessels and recording information about landings and take-offs of military aircrafts.

    The severity of Li’s punishment was exacerbated by a list of so-called classified books he had purchased from the Beijing National Library, including a catalogue of books ordered by mainland universities and a limited distribution compendium of news and opinion pieces sold principally to government bodies and work units known as Selected Internal Reference. In this case, Li bore the sole onus even though the alleged harm to China’s security was created in part by its own bureaucratic loopholes: it was the Beijing National Library that sold him the so-called secret books.
A 2010 issue of Selected Internal Reference, which bears a confidential secrecy status for a period of six months, is a classified document said to be illegally acquired by “Taiwanese spies.” These internal publications are sometimes available in public libraries or sold to scrap recyclers. Image Credit:
The fact that the court statistics did not record a single Taiwan-related ESS case in 2013 appears to suggest that Chinese nationals accused of providing state secrets to Taiwan are excluded from the criteria that make a case Taiwan-related. This omission of a vast number of Chinese nationals renders the court statistics much less useful to gauge the perceived “Taiwan threat” posed to China. Were the Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign nationals accused of Taiwanese espionage classified as Taiwan-related, then the number of Taiwan-related ESS cases would be substantially higher.

A renewed threat 

The hostility between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) was suspended following the historic handshake between former Chinese leader Hu Jintao and then-KMT chairman Lien Zhan in 2005. China no longer sees the Beijing-friendly KMT as a major state security threat. Instead, the KMT is now seen as a potential partner in what China considers the “unification” of Taiwan with the mainland.

Hostility has resumed since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party began her first term as president in 2016. Both sides have exchanged fiery rhetoric and called each other a threat to national security and social stability. In July 2019, Xi said he would not rule out using force to stem Taiwan’s independence and achieve reunification. Tsai’s landslide re-election victory in January 2020 is widely viewed as a response by Taiwanese voters to threats from China. In response to Tsai’s re-election, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi remarked that separatists will “leave a stink for 10,000 years.”

Although the meaning of Taiwan-related ESS cases remains ambiguous, the number is almost certainly expected to rise amid the souring of cross-strait relations. Taiwan residents are also at heightened risk of arbitrary detention in the mainland. The most well-known victim is Lee Ming-cheh (李明哲), a former worker for the Democratic Progressive Party who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for subversion in Hunan in 2017. Observers believe that Lee was politically pursued because Beijing sees Tsai’s refusal to accept the “one China” principle as a provocative move to promote independence. A conspiratorial view even suggests that Lee’s imprisonment was retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest of a former mainland student for espionage earlier in March 2017.

Lee may not be alone in facing retaliation. In September 2019, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reported that 67 Taiwan residents had been held incommunicado in China since 2016. Among them, at least three are currently held for ESS charges.

Strong US support for Taiwan in recent years has likely contributed to China’s more aggressive stance. On March 26, 2020, President Trump enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which aims to help Taiwan gain participation in international organizations and to discourage Taiwan’s allies from cutting ties with the island due to pressure from Beijing. Global Times responded that the legislation “demonstrates the US’s consistent plots to contain China’s development and obstruct the country’s reunification by playing the Taiwan card.”

The ambiguities in how courts classify Taiwan-related cases make it difficult to understand how cases of alleged Taiwan espionage are dealt with in the legal system and by the media. Discrepancies between what is reported in the court statistics as opposed to other public records also suggest that China’s mobilization of the “Taiwan threat” is motivated by political interests at least as much as by concerns for mainland security. Taiwan, on the other hand, is facing increasingly threatening rhetoric from an opponent that openly speaks of its annexation, be it peaceful or not, as inevitable.

Tsai’s successful re-election, combined with the strong US-Taiwan ties, has coincided with the Chinese government’s escalation of rhetoric to address the “Taiwan threat.” Under such circumstances, China is more likely than ever to exacerbate its clampdown on Taiwanese spies in the name of safeguarding state security. The sweeping crackdown will not only involve Taiwan residents, but also Chinese or foreign nationals who may be unlucky enough to be scapegoated as Taiwanese spies. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I

This post, the fourth in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, discusses so-called “Taiwan-related” cases of endangering state security in mainland China.

Taiwan scrambled F-16 fighter jets (L) to intercept Chinese H-6 bombers (R) flying around the island on February 9 and 10, 2020. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army resumed regular “island encirclement” drills to deter pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen after she took office in 2016. Image Credit: official Facebook page of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense
The self-ruling island of Taiwan has been a thorn in China’s side since the island’s breakaway in 1949. Viewed by China as a territory awaiting reunification, Taiwan is a potential military flashpoint, with both sides of the strait conducting clandestine intelligence operations in each other’s territory.

Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-straits relations. In 2017, Taiwanese news media sources said that there were approximately 5,000 Chinese spies in Taiwan, although the Chinese government dismissed these reports. In September 2018, China’s state security departments announced that over a hundred Taiwanese spy cases had been prosecuted amid its “Thunderbolt 2018” campaign. China accused Taiwan of luring mainland students studying in Taiwan with “money, love and friendship,” as well as using honey traps to recruit them as spies.

The “Taiwan threat” has long been a major part of the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric, but how it articulates this perceived danger has varied. This post, the latest in Dui Hua’s series using statistics from the Supreme People’s Court, compares public information sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with court statistics. Much like in its coverage of Hong Kong-related cases, ambiguity and inconsistencies in reporting suggest an opaque system prone to opportunistic interpretations of criminal law.

Cross-Strait Espionage

“Thunderbolt 2018” may be the most publicized recent event, but similar spy allegations have been levelled by both sides since the China-Taiwan divide in 1949. China and Taiwan accuse each other of seeking to carry out “infiltration and sabotage activities.” In China, tens of thousands of “remnants” and alleged spies of Kuomintang (KMT) were sentenced and executed for counterrevolution alongside other class enemies such as landlords, rich farmers, bad influencers, and rightists in the years following 1949. 

For almost half a century until the early 1990s, the two sides were engaged in intense “psychological warfare” involving the use of megaphones, radio stations, balloons, and floating carriers containing leaflets to spread rumors and disinformation in order to misdirect enemy plans, encourage political defections, and stir unrest. Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981: about 60 percent of the 3,600 counterrevolutionary correspondences discovered in China in the prior year were sent to Hong Kong and Japan-based KMT agents. In 1989, China also blamed Taiwan for ramping up its psychological warfare and espionage networks with the goal of recapturing the mainland during the political turmoil commonly known as June Fourth. 

The threat from Taiwan, however, appears to have been superseded by emerging domestic dissent after counterrevolution was expunged and largely repackaged as endangering state security (ESS) in 1997. Since then, splittism and inciting splittism have consistently accounted for the majority of China’s ESS cases nationwide. Used almost exclusively against Uyghurs and Tibetans, the two ESS offenses do not appear to have obvious connections to Taiwan.

Table 1. Taiwan-related ESS cases concluded in China, 1998-2016
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

The 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Statistics seems to confirm that the threat posed by Taiwan was rather negligible for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998. Of the 5,804 ESS cases concluded during this period, 37, or less than one percent, were classified as “Taiwan-related.” All but one Taiwan-related ESS case concerned espionage (the single exception was a case of “illegally trafficking in state secrets” in 2000). 

The number of Taiwan-related ESS cases cannot clearly indicate how Taiwan is perceived as a security threat to China. Comparing information from public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with the court statistics suggests that either the court statistics have downplayed the influence of Taiwan by not taking into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the rhetoric used by China to describe the threat posed by Taiwan is disproportionate to the severity of Taiwanese meddling as noted by its justice system.

Comparing numbers

The majority of Taiwan-related ESS cases from 1998-2016 were concluded amid the escalating cross-straits tensions of the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian presidencies (both are accused of exploiting Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment to win the elections). Of the 37 Taiwan-related ESS cases, at least 29 were concluded when Lee and Chen were presidents. This number appears to represent only a small portion of what China publicly disclosed within the same period. 

In December 2003, Xinhua News Agency reported breaking a batch of Taiwanese espionage cases in just one year involving 24 Taiwanese and 19 Chinese residents who operated on the mainland. The following year, four Taiwan espionage cases in Zhejiang were widely publicized, with four defendants from Taiwan and one from the mainland. The 2004 cases were linked to statements by Chen Shui-bien, who revealed detailed knowledge about the location and number of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan. 

Cross-strait rapprochement that began when Ma Ying-jeou became the Taiwanese president in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. The trend is also reflected in Table 1: only five Taiwan-related cases were recorded between 2009 and 2016. Nevertheless, the court statistics are in stark contrast with what was reported by the Global Times in 2014. The report stated that nearly 40 Taiwanese espionage cases across 15 provinces and municipalities had been solved in that year, compared to only one Taiwan-related ESS case reported in the court records. The media reports on Taiwanese espionage cases were mostly related to mainland students who had studied in Taiwan.

A possible reason for such discrepancies between the court statistics and cases reported in news media sources is the murky definition of “Taiwan-related” in the court records. It is unclear if cases designated as “Taiwan-related” refer exclusively to those involving Taiwan residents. 

However, Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included both Taiwan residents and Chinese nationals when labelling a case Taiwanese espionage. In some cases, US citizens and green card holders can likewise be labelled Taiwanese spies. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database records information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage,” a term court judgments sometimes use when describing a case.

Taiwan residents

Table 2. Sentence breakdown of "Taiwanese spies" with information in Dui Hua's PPDB.
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

Before China’s reform and opening in 1979, Taiwanese agents concentrated much of their intelligence operations in colonial Hong Kong because both sides could rarely access each other’s territory. China’s opening provided an opportunity for Taiwan to directly develop intelligence networks in the mainland. In 2014, Chinese state news media said that Taiwanese spies masqueraded as travelers, family visitors of mainland residents, and businesspeople. More recently, the sprawling spy networks have allegedly included tourists who make short-term visits to the mainland and “Chinese brides” who marry Taiwanese men.

One notable case is Li Junmin, who was accused of counterrevolution espionage and sentenced to death in 1983. His sentence was subsequently revised to death with two-year reprieve by the Supreme People’s Court. Dui Hua started to intervene on his behalf in 2002. Li was released in 2006 after receiving several sentence reductions.

It must be noted that Taiwanese residents in the mainland are also known to have been recruited as Chinese spies and to have received prison sentences in Taiwan. However, the majority of the alleged Taiwanese spies sentenced in China are not Taiwan residents. Among the over 100 “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. Most of these cases were reported in news media sources in the decade after 1997.

Chinese nationals

Chinese nationals account for the majority of people sentenced in China for Taiwanese espionage. In the two decades after China’s reform, Chinese nationals accused of espionage have typically been portrayed as unemployed or whiners who developed “dissatisfaction with current reality” after being poisoned by Taiwan’s psychological warfare. In recent years, common allegations against them include illicitly taking photos of military bases and photocopying classified books and internal documents. In 2009, Taiwan lifted the ban on accepting exchange students from China as a goodwill gesture to thaw cross-strait relations. Chinese state news media sources have reported an increasing number of Taiwanese spy cases involving mainland exchange students who returned from Taiwan

China’s "anti-spy manual," circulated in 2019, features a Taiwanese espionage case in which a mainland exchange student is said to have been compromised by a Taiwanese woman who works for the military intelligence service. Image Credit:
Dui Hua’s PPDB has information on 81 Chinese nationals who were sentenced for Taiwanese espionage from 1998-2016. Fifty-five of them received fixed-term imprisonment, with half of them sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment or longer. Eleven people were sentenced to life imprisonment, three people were sentenced to death with reprieve, and at least eight people were executed during the same period. Most of these cases, again, were concluded from 1998-2008. Given this number of Chinese nationals, it is doubtful whether the court statistics classify all of them as Taiwan-related even though they are labelled Taiwanese spies by state news media, court judgments, and other government sources. 

Wo Weihan (沃维汉) and Guo Wanjun (郭万钧) are the last known Chinese nationals who were executed for Taiwanese espionage. They were given death sentences in 2007 for allegedly passing information on the mainland’s missile guidance system to Taiwan. Wo’s execution in 2008 was strongly condemned by the European Union and the United States, which had sought a stay of execution.

Since 2008, there has only been one publicly disclosed death sentence for espionage involving a Chinese national: that of computer technician Huang Yu (黄宇), who was accused of selling 150,000 classified documents to foreign agents from 2002-2011. Available sources, however, did not say for whom Huang had spied.

Alleged cases of Taiwanese espionage involving foreign nationals, as well as the possible use of Taiwan-based espionage allegations for political gain, are discussed in Part II to be published next week.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

American Views of China Plummet Amid Coronavirus Crisis

President Trump and President Xi at the start of their bilateral meeting June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan. Image credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead / Public domain
For more than 40 years, the Gallup organization has polled American opinion on China. The results of its latest poll, published on March 2, 2020, reveal a sharp drop in opinion among Americans towards China. Only one-third of Americans now have a favorable view of China.

This represents a 20-percentage point drop compared to the share of Americans with a favorable opinion of China recorded in Gallup's 2018 poll. China’s 33 percent favorability rating ties the lowest reading in recent memory and is a point lower than the first poll taken after the Tiananmen killings in 1989. For the first time since polling started, no significant percentage of respondents gave a “No Opinion” answer; unfavorable opinions of China, especially “very unfavorable” ones, are at an all-time high. The graph below depicts the changes in public opinion:

In the most recent Gallup poll, China is tied with Russia as the United States’ greatest enemy. Furthermore, for the first time in 20 years, Americans do not believe that China is the world’s top economy. Half of Americans now hold that the United States is the world’s leading economy with China a distant second, at 39 percent.

Dui Hua believes that the poor view of China in the eyes of Americans is in large part related to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. The Gallup poll was taken from February 3-16 and surveyed 1,028 American adults. During this two-week period, the number of cases and deaths of the deadly virus in China soared from 20,630 cases and 426 deaths on February 3 to 71,329 cases and 1,775 deaths on February 16. Media coverage was intense, peaking with the news of the death of the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang on February 7. The period coincided with the decision by the United States and other countries to bar entry to arrivals from China.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 American adults conducted from February 9-11, 2020, 70 percent of those polled were closely following the news on the coronavirus, and nearly 70 percent believed that the government should bar entry into the United States for foreigners with the virus. In this poll, 40 percent approved of the way Donald Trump is handling China versus 44 percent who disapproved. Weekly Economist/YouGov polls conducted throughout February saw the percentage of Americans who think that the US government should quarantine people who have recently been to China increase from 65 percent to 71 percent.

These frequently conducted Economist/YouGov polls corroborate the general drop in favorable opinion recorded by the Pew Research Center and Gallup. Between July 2016 and March 2020, respondents were asked 125 times whether they viewed China as an ally or enemy of the United States. While the Gallup poll focused on personal opinions toward China, this question gauges perceptions of US-China relations. At several points in 2017, a plurality of respondents assessed the relationship as positive, peaking at 43 percent saying China was a US ally or friend on November  21, 2017. That number has gradually slid, however, and in the latest poll results, on March 3, 2020, an outright majority (61 percent) of respondents deemed China unfriendly or an enemy, as can be seen in the following graph:

While disapproval of China cuts across party lines, opinions about China are especially low among Republicans. According to the Gallup poll, less than a quarter of Republicans view China favorably, and 31 percent consider China to be the United States’ greatest enemy.

In addition to the coronavirus outbreak, Gallup lists allegations of spying by Chinese students and scholars at American colleges, tensions over trade and territorial disputes, and accusations of alleged theft by China of American technology as other possible reasons for China’s dismal performance in the most recent poll. Dui Hua believes that extensive reporting of human rights abuses in China, particularly in Xinjiang, has contributed to the fall in China’s image.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Hong Kong-Related Cases

One of the “No China Extradition” posters which were common during the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, which started in June 2019. Image Credit: kowloonsingjai via Facebook
Civil unrest in Hong Kong, which entered its eighth month in February 2020, was initially triggered by a now-rescinded bill that would have allowed for the Special Administrative Region to extradite fugitive offenders to countries with whom Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty, including mainland China. At the heart of these protests is a fundamental distrust for China’s judicial system among Hong Kong people.

China has one of the highest conviction rates in the world; less than one percent of people brought to trial are acquitted. China’s judicial system routinely violates due process, and prisoners are known to have been subjected to torture and inhumane treatment.

Distrust of the mainland’s justice system deepened in November 2019 when former British consulate employee Simon Cheng spoke out for the first time about his 15 days of administrative detention in Shenzhen. Cheng, a supporter of the anti-extradition bill protests, was detained for “soliciting prostitutes” in late August. He dismissed the accusation and claimed that he had been tortured and forced to make two confession videos. Many observers believe that the charge against Cheng was fabricated and/or politically motivated.

While distrust for the legal system is widespread, some Hong Kong people do legitimately run afoul of mainland law as more of them have traveled, lived, or worked there since China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997. According to information provided by the Chinese authorities to the Hong Kong government, from 2001 to 2015, 9,400 Hong Kong people were subjected to criminal compulsory measures — summons for questioning, determination of bail, residence surveillance, detention, and arrest — in China. Most of them were detained in Guangdong for fraud, smuggling ordinary goods, or drug-related charges under Chinese law.

Releasing the number of detainees, their whereabouts, and the nature of their offences via the so-called reciprocal notification mechanism is within the Hong Kong government’s power. However, it is unclear how many Hong Kong people are left to the mercy of Chinese courts because such figures are not available. Citing incomplete information from the Correctional Services Department, then-Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee estimated that 1,250 Hong Kong people were serving sentences in Chinese prisons in 2011, of whom 800 were doing so in Guangdong. This was the last year for which the Hong Kong government provided an estimate of the number of Hong Kong people serving sentences in Chinese prisons. 

In a display of judicial transparency not exhibited in Hong Kong, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) of China sheds some light on this subject in its 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016. The court records provide the numbers of “Hong Kong-related” criminal cases for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998.

This post, the third in a series that draws on the 12-volume set, discusses criminal cases involving Hong Kong people who have been tried by Chinese courts. However, the lack of clear criteria for what makes a case Hong Kong-related as well as apparent underreporting and unclear or arbitrary categorizations, sentencing, and stipulations continue to muddle a system that many in Hong Kong already view with distrust and skepticism.

Deciphering Hong Kong-Related Cases

Table 1. First-instance Hong Kong-related cases concluded in China, 1998-2016
All Criminal Cases
Endangering State Security
Illegal Business
Smuggling Ordinary Goods or Articles


















Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.

Table 1 shows that 2,987 criminal trials of first instance concluded in China from 1998-2016 were categorized as Hong Kong-related. Over forty percent, or 1,274, of these fell under the purview of the crime “undermining the order of socialist market economy.” Within this designation, smuggling ordinary goods or articles accounted for the biggest portion; 955 cases were Hong Kong-related.

What exactly are Hong Kong-related cases? The definition is not given in the court records. However, Chinese legal experts tend to agree that such cases encompass three scenarios. Legal Study and Research states that Hong Kong-related cases are:
  1. in the widest sense, where Hong Kong residents are put on trial as defendants in China;
  2. where Hong Kong residents are the offended parties (i.e. victims in a criminal case);
  3. where the criminal conduct, or consequences of such conduct, occurs in Hong Kong.
Deciphering Endangering State Security Cases

Understanding the nature of Hong Kong-related cases is further complicated when taking into account cases of endangering state security (ESS). Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB), which tracks political and religious prisoners incarcerated in China since 1980, has information on more Hong Kong-related ESS cases than what is reported in the court records.

Table 1 shows that only two ESS cases were Hong Kong-related: one for espionage in 2006 and another in 2016 for stealing, secretly gathering, purchasing, or illegally trafficking in state secrets or intelligence for foreign entities.

Ching Cheong was sentenced in one of the most controversial 
ESS cases related to Hong Kong in 2006. Image credit: Gospel Herald
The 2006 ESS case likely concerns Ching Cheong (程翔), a veteran journalist in Hong Kong who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Beijing. The espionage charge stemmed from his attempts to obtain a manuscript copy of interviews with Zhao Ziyang, a reformist Chinese Communist Party leader who opposed the armed suppression of student protests in 1989.

Ching was accused of obtaining “classified” documents from Lu Jianhua (陆建华), a former sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for illegally providing state secrets for foreign entities in 2006. Lu, who is not a Hong Kong resident, received what appears to be the harshest sentence given to an individual involved in an ESS case related to Hong Kong after 1997. Lu has not been granted any sentence reductions 15 years into his sentence and is scheduled for release from Beijing’s Chaobai Prison in April 2025.

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments revealed that the 2016 case involved Ou Jiaming (欧家铭), who was sentenced in Beijing to 12 years’ imprisonment for illegally providing state secrets for foreign entities, with a supplemental three years’ deprivation of political rights sentence. Ou is scheduled for release in August 2023 following a seven-month sentence reduction granted to him in November 2019.

It is unclear why the following cases are not classified as Hong Kong-related in the court records despite all the defendants being Hong Kong residents:
  • Xu Zerong (徐泽荣) is a mainland-born Hong Kong permanent resident who was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment in Shenzhen in 2001 for illegally trafficking in state secrets for foreign and illegal business entities (read “Cracking Down on Dissenting Versions of History” for a more in-depth dissection of Xu’s case). Xu was detained in Guangzhou in August 2000 while working as a university researcher. He was released in June 2011, following three sentence reductions totaling 24 months.
  • Chen Zhaolu (陈兆禄), born in 1917, was one of the oldest ESS prisoners with close connections to Hong Kong. Sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment at the age of 87 in 2004 in Guangzhou for an unspecified ESS crime, Chen was also a Xinhua News Agency employee with residency in Hong Kong. He was accused of collecting intelligence, this time for Taiwan. Due to his advanced age, Chen was released on medical parole in 2009. Dui Hua has not received any updates about Chen following the expiry of his prison sentence on October 24, 2014.
  • Chen Yulin (陈瑜琳) and Wei Pingyuan (魏平元), are former employees of Xinhua News Agency, which served as China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong before the handover. They were sentenced in 2004, when state propaganda started describing the former British colony as a “nest of spies.” The court found that they had provided information for the British Secret Intelligence Service during the years leading up to the handover in 1997. Both men are still in prison despite multiple sentence reductions; they are due for release in 2020.
The impending release of Chen and Wei prompts question as to where they will serve their supplemental deprivation of political rights (DPR) sentences. Chen was given a supplemental seven years’ DPR sentence in 2007, when his life sentence was first commuted to 19 years and six months. DPR sentences entail surveillance and bar individuals from giving interviews, publishing articles, and voting.

In January 2020, a Chinese government source informed Dui Hua that individuals serving DPR sentences are not allowed to leave the mainland and will be sent back to public security should they attempt to cross the border. However, previous events suggest that authorities in China may exercise discretion allowing Hong Kong residents to return home before their DPR sentences expire. For instance, Ching Cheong returned to Hong Kong on February 5, 2008, just one day after he was released on parole. Ching had a one-year DPR sentence to serve, which expired in 2009.

The leniency given to Ching, however, does not appear commonplace because his case was expedited by international attention. Less publicized cases may not enjoy the same swiftness. In 2011, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-Beijing political party, reportedly received seven complaints from Hong Kong people who had been barred from returning to Hong Kong while they were serving DPR sentences. Their Hong Kong identification documents had not been returned to them after the completion of their prison sentences.

Illegal Business

Table 1 shows that 24 illegal business cases from 1998-2016 were Hong Kong-related. This non-ESS offense is noteworthy because the following case involving two booksellers from Hong Kong is highly political.

Wang Jianmin (王建民) and Guo Zhongxiao (呙中校) are both Hong Kong permanent residents. Wang and Guo were sentenced to prison for illegal business, bribery and bid rigging in 2014. Wang was sentenced to five years and three months, and Guo received two years and three months. Originally from the mainland, the duo was accused of earning around HK$7.8 million by publishing two magazines that featured political gossip in China, a small number of which were sold to the mainland.

Although Wang is an American citizen, he entered China on his Hong Kong documents. He did not benefit from American consular protections because his US citizenship was not recognized by China. American diplomats were not allowed to attend his trial nor were they allowed to visit him in prison.

Smuggling Ordinary Goods

Since 2010, the Supreme People’s Court has released three regulations that assign to courts throughout the country the responsibility for publicly releasing judgments. The latest regulations, published in August 2016, require courts to release more information with greater detail. Smuggling ordinary goods and products is the most common crime committed by Hong Kong people in China. Most of these cases were not political: they dealt with cross-border parallel traders who procured electronics, foodstuffs, cosmetics, medicine, and infant formulas tax-free in Hong Kong to resell for profit in the mainland.

Table 1 indicates that there were 573 Hong Kong-related cases of smuggling ordinary goods and articles from 2012-2016. Based on information culled from online judgments, only 56 cases, slightly less than 10 percent, involving 62 Hong Kong residents as defendants were published online during the same period.

The court statistics do not provide information on the type and length of sentences meted out to Hong Kong residents. The graphs below illustrate the missing information based on the 62 Hong Kong residents who were sentenced in China from 2012-2016:

Most Hong Kong residents convicted of smuggling goods and products received criminal detention not exceeding six months, a sentence typically served in a detention center and carried out by public security. The Criminal Law states that individuals serving criminal detention are allowed to return home for one or two days each month. Given that cross-border law enforcement is not permissible, it is unclear whether Hong Kong residents can benefit from this provision.

Based on findings collected from online judgments, about one-third of Hong Kong people were sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment for smuggling goods from 2012-2016. Seven of them remain imprisoned at the time of writing. One of them was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment and will remain incarcerated until April 2033. He was given a combined sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Quanzhou, Fujian, for smuggling both ordinary goods and waste.

Yao Wentian, aged 78, a Hong Kong publisher who has 
been imprisoned since 2014. Image credit: The Stand News
There was at least one highly political smuggling case involving a Hong Kong resident. Perhaps due to the sensitivity of the case, the judgment of Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian (姚文田) has never been published online. Yao was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years’ imprisonment in Shenzhen for smuggling ordinary goods. However, he is widely believed to have faced reprisal for preparing to release a book critical of Xi Jinping. He earned his first sentence reduction of eight months in April 2019. Now aged 78, Yao still has three more years to serve before his sentence expires in March 2023. Dui Hua will continue to seek clemency for Yao through its Chinese interlocutors.

Building trust?

The Hong Kong government has yet to respond to public inquiries about Hong Kong prisoners incarcerated in the mainland. It is not known to have visited detention centers, prisons, or other carceral facilities in any of the cases discussed above. There is a pressing need for the government to conduct routine visits of those incarcerated in a judicial system that is vastly different from that of Hong Kong. The government’s inaction in this regard hardly inspires trust. Dui Hua’s Executive Director John Kamm has repeatedly urged Hong Kong officials and pro-Beijing legislators to do more to safeguard the rights of Hong Kong people in the mainland but has only received tepid responses.

Transparency is crucial to understand the legal process of controversial cases and to strengthen accountability for human rights violations. The disclosure of Hong Kong-related cases in the court statistics signals a welcome step in reducing the opacity of mainland China’s justice system. However, the fundamental question of how many Hong Kong people are imprisoned in the mainland remains largely ambiguous because of the lack of a definition of Hong Kong-related cases. The actual number of cases, especially those in connection to ESS, is likely to be higher than what is reported in the court statistics. Dui Hua’s findings on smuggling cases also suggest that China’s vow to improve judicial transparency leaves much to be desired.

Both China and Hong Kong should make regular disclosures about Hong Kong people imprisoned in the mainland, including their offenses, whereabouts, sentence reductions, parole status, and any form of clemency they receive. Judicial transparency could be a positive step to build trust in China’s justice system, a system that is widely criticized for being both oppressive and opaque.