Thursday, June 4, 2020

Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part II

In Detailed Court Statistics on Article 300, Part I, Dui Hua explored the application of Article 300 over an 18-year period spanning 1998-2016, examining the types of cases prosecuted under Article 300 as well as the roles of women and ethnic minorities in organizations deemed to be cults. Part II analyzes trends in sentencing and discusses post-2016 developments concerning Article 300.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress extended the maximum penalty of Article 300 from 15 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment in the ninth amendment of the criminal law, which came into effect on November 1, 2015. Image credit: Liaoning Pindao

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. Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 contains 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. 

Replacing the former 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. 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. Despite these limitations, the statistics offer a glimpse of how China invoked its criminal justice process to crack down on religion.

Punishment Trends

Acquittals are rare in China. In cult cases, only 69 men and women who stood trial from 1998-2016 were acquitted.

About 99.8 percent of cult trials ended with a conviction. Among them, 384, or 1.3 percent, were exempt from criminal punishment, and 219, or 0.8 percent, were sentenced to criminal detention or public surveillance.

Table 1. Sentencing breakdown of cult cases

Most cult defendants received imprisonment sentences. The court statistics broke down the sentencing information into four groups: a. below three years, b. three to five years, c. over five years to death penalty, and d. suspended sentences.

Article 300 is not a capital crime, but China’s propaganda often conflates cults with violent crimes such as murder to stigmatize certain religious groups even though violence is only rarely involved. In such cases, death sentences are possible. 

From 1997-2015, Article 300 as a standalone offense carried a maximum sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment. The ninth amendment to the Criminal Law in 2015 increased the maximum sentence to life imprisonment. It is unclear how many defendants convicted of Article 300 received life sentences because of how the sentencing information is categorized in the court records.

In the 18 years beginning in 1998, suspended sentences were not uncommon in cult cases, with 3,620 defendants, or 13 percent, receiving suspended sentences. Chart 1 shows an overall upward trend in the use of suspended sentences. In 2013, suspended sentences were meted out to one in every four defendants.

From 2002-2004, about 40 percent of all the cult defendants received the upper end of prison sentences exceeding five years, vis-à-vis 26 percent and 18 percent of those who received the medium and lower end of prison sentences, respectively. The severity of punishment highlighted the heightened repression of Falun Gong at the time.

The proportion of people who received prison sentences exceeding five years dropped to 12 percent from 28 percent from 2005-2013. In 2015, however, the number of people who received longer prison sentences surged to 1,218, making it the only year between 1998-2016 when the number exceeded 1,000. The severity of punishment, which cumulated in the 2015 amendment to the Criminal Law that turned Article 300 into a crime with the possibility of life in prison, was largely triggered by the heightened crackdown on Almighty God. China’s propaganda offensive against the quasi-Christian sect intensified following the killing of a woman in a McDonald’s restaurant allegedly committed by Almighty God members in May 2014. In this case, two members who committed the murder were sentenced to death in February 2015, and two others received life imprisonment. All of them were also convicted of violating Article 300.

This trend of severe punishment appears to have lasted only one year. In 2016, the number of cult defendants who received longer prison sentences dropped fourfold to 333. More than half of them were sentenced to imprisonment not longer than three years.

Going forward

Although the court records only provide criminal trial statistics up to 2016, other government sources seem to suggest that the trend towards greater leniency in cult cases continued afterwards. Effective since February 1, 2017, the judicial interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court in 2017 raises the threshold for evidence necessary to imprison cult prisoners for up to three to seven years. For instance, the quantity of print propaganda materials (such as leaflets, banners, or newspapers) produced or disseminated for cult purposes that constitute a normal offense has now been raised to 1,000, a significant leap from 300, as stated in the 2001 interpretation. Today, more cult cases are likely to be deemed “relatively minor” because the interpretation has expanded the scope of activities that fall under such a category.

Dui Hua previously reported that it is not uncommon for cult prisoners to receive clemency after expressing remorse for their behaviour. This trend remains unchanged. Since January 1, 2017, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has documented over 1,200 instances of sentence reductions, parole, and medical parole granted to “cult” prisoners. All these acts of clemency were confirmed by official sources, including court judgments and responses provided by government interlocutors to Dui Hua.

However, Dui Hua continues to find a large number of cult cases from government sources after 2016. From 2017-2019, over 6,000 cult judgments have been posted online. Most of them involve Falun Gong, followed by Almighty God.

These judgments also revealed a troubling aspect of judicial transparency in cult cases involving ethnic minorities. Dui Hua uncovered about three dozen cases which appear to involve Uyghurs or Kazakhs; the judgments were all handed down in Aksu Prefecture in June 2019. This finding suggests that China’s crackdown on cult organizations has extended to Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, but details remain unknown because judges exercised their power to conceal content that they believe might endanger social stability. These judgments only revealed information about defendants’ names, crimes, and the courts which handled the cases. All other information, including how long they were sentenced and where they are incarcerated, has been obscured.

Since 2019, state news media has reported a large number of cult cases in Shandong and Qinghai. In each instance, dozens to over 600 people were admonished, administratively detained, or criminally detained. A portion of these “cult” members are believed to have been indicted or brought to trial.

Anti-cult propaganda continues unabated even amid the COVID-19 outbreaks across China. Authorities in Henan combine COVID-19 prevention measures with an anti-cult message, saying, “Pandemic prevention requires cult prevention.” Image credit:

China continued to deploy considerable manpower to suppress cult organizations even amid the COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. From January to early May 2020, the China Anti-Cult Association reported 25 cult cases across different provinces. About half of these cases were related to the pandemic. Among them, 15 Falun Gong practitioners were detained for disseminating anti-government materials. They were also accused of “concocting and spreading superstitious fallacies” about their supernatural power to cure COVID-19 when the outbreaks were at their peak in February.

Society of Disciples, also known as Mentu Hui, has been much less visible in China, but this Christian sect was involved in one of the reported coronavirus-related cult cases. The group allegedly claimed that conversion could help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In this case, a woman surnamed Wu in Gong County, Sichuan, received administrative detention for 15 days.

Despite signs of greater leniency towards cult offenders, there are sufficient grounds to believe that the number of cases, as well as the number of individuals, especially women, brought to trial for Article 300 has remained in the thousands over the past few years. Dui Hua will continue to monitor the application of this crime, which has been used by the Chinese government to jail tens of thousands of religious dissenters since 1997.