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.

In Part II, Dui Hua 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. Read it here.

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