Thursday, July 9, 2020

Court Statistics on Splittism & Inciting Splittism, Part I

This is the first post in a three-part series examining the application of splittism and inciting splittism charges using Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016. Previous posts drawing on SPC statistics discussed the decline in juvenile convictions, cases related to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and cases covered by Article 300 of the Criminal Law—“using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.”

On May 27, 2014, the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture Branch of the Xinjiang High People’s Court convicted 55 defendants of splittism, “organizing/leading/participating in a terrorist organization” and murder in a public rally of sentencing, arrest and criminal detention jointly held by the party secretary and public security. Image credit: China Daily

Splittism and inciting splittism are crimes of endangering state security (ESS), introduced in 1997. They are routinely used to suppress calls for greater self-determination rights, including genuine autonomy and political separation from China. Trials of these two crimes have been used as proxies for the suppression of dissenters from ethnic minority groups, most notably Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Defined in Article 103 of the Criminal Law, splittism and inciting splittism serve to deter people from “splitting the country or undermining national unification.” The former carries a potential death sentence and targets those who organize, plot, or act to divide China. Inciting splittism is not a capital crime and is applicable when an offender urges or persuades others to commit splittism through the use of language, text, images, or other communication tools but does not commit splittism him- or herself.

Statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 corroborate Dui Hua’s observation that splittism and inciting splittism are considered by the Chinese government to be the two principal state security threats in China. The two crimes account for the majority of ESS cases nationwide and are disproportionately applied to ethnic minorities.

Chinese courts accepted 5,863 ESS cases and brought 14,072 people to trial for ESS in the first 18 years after the 1997 Criminal Law came into effect. Charts 1 and 2 show that among them, 4,304, or 73 percent of the ESS cases, and 11,810, or 84 percent of the defendants, stood trial for splittism or inciting splittism.

Chart 3 shows that the first peak of splittism and inciting splittism cases occurred in 2001; a total of 731 people were brought to trial. Although sporadic incidents of ethnic unrest had started earlier in the 1990s, China remained relatively silent and downplayed the severity of the security threat before 2001, according to a research report by CNA China Studies.

China began speaking more openly and frequently about separatist violence in Xinjiang after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. After 9/11, Beijing employed similar rhetoric to the United States to justify its own “War on Terror” and designated the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization with assistance from global jihadist networks. In the same year, China started blaming ETIM for instigating a number of separatist and terrorist activities in China. Because most information on ETIM can only be tracked back to Chinese government sources, some critics have raised questions of credibility and said the threats were exaggerated.

Due to the limited information available, it is impossible to quantify the extent of ETIM’s involvement in splittism and inciting splittism cases. Dui Hua’s research, however, revealed that a substantial proportion of these cases after 2000 were attributed to Hizb ut-Tahrir (伊扎布特), or Party of Liberation. For example, in 2010, police in Kashgar identified 522 people for their involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Many countries have banned the group, but independent media reports documenting Hizb ut-Tahrir activity in China are scarce. Members of this group are also likely to face terrorism-related charges. Part II will feature a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

The six years before the Beijing Summer Olympics were a period of relative calm. The number of people tried for splittism and inciting splittism dropped every year from 2002-2005, falling from 630 people to 310, but increased steadily in the two years since 2006. From 2002-2007, the number of people tried for splittism and inciting splittism made up around 80 percent of ESS defendants nationwide.

The crackdown on separatism intensified in 2008; the number of defendants tried for the two crimes doubled to 1,155 from 564 in 2007. This surge was likely triggered by calls for an Olympics boycott by international activists over China’s extensive human rights violations. Chinese state media blamed ETIM and Tibetan separatists in exile for fanning anti-China sentiment overseas. Just months ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Tibetan protests erupted in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, and spread across the entire Tibetan plateau.

The number stayed high between 2009 and 2013, during which 3,871 people were brought to trial. Notable incidents of ethnic unrest included the Urumqi Riots in July 2009, a spate of Tibetan self-immolation protests, and violent attacks allegedly committed by Uyghurs in- and outside of Xinjiang.

A significant drop in the number of people brought to trial for splittism and inciting splittism occurred in 2014, falling to 577 from 886 in 2013. The number dipped almost threefold to 199 in 2015 and remained low in 2016. From 2015-2016, splittism and inciting splittism cases accounted for 58 percent of all ESS cases, down from over 90 percent when these cases were at their peak in 2012.

It is worth noting that China consistently tried and concluded more cases of splittism than inciting splittism from 1998-2013, but the case ratio vastly fluctuated. In 2013, ten people were tried for splittism for every one person tried for inciting splittism. The ratio dropped to 1.7:1 in 2005. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of defendants tried for splittism was 1.7-4.6 times more than those tried for inciting splittism.

The number of cases and defendants tried for splittism was superseded by inciting splittism after 2013. From 2014-2016, 630 people were tried for inciting splittism, more than double the number of defendants for splittism. More research is needed to better understand this emerging trend.


From 1998-2016, only 15 people tried for splittism or inciting splittism were acquitted. These acquittals mostly occurred in the first five years after 1997. No one was acquitted for either crime from 2003 through 2016. The only exception was in 2009; four people were acquitted for inciting splittism.

About 99.6 percent of splittism and inciting splittism trials ended with a conviction. Charts 4 and 5 show the following types of punishment: a. below three years, b. three to five years, c. over five years to death penalty, d. other, which includes exemption from criminal punishment, suspended sentence, criminal detention, and public surveillance.

Thirty-five people, 0.8 percent, were exempt from criminal punishment. Only three people, or 0.07 percent, were given criminal detention.

Non-custodial punishments were also rare. Only 26 people received suspended sentences (eight for splittism, 18 for inciting splittism), and 16 people were given public surveillance (nine for splittism, seven for inciting splittism).

The vast majority of people received imprisonment sentences. Chart 4 shows that considerably more people convicted of splittism received longer prison sentences than those convicted of inciting splittism. In the 18 years beginning in 1998, 74 percent of defendants convicted for splittism received prison sentences longer than five years, compared to 41 percent for inciting splittism as shown in Chart 5.

Chart 6 shows a year-by-year sentencing breakdown for people convicted of splittism from 1998-2016. The surge of long prison sentences (i.e. longer than five years) meted out from 2008-2013 coincided with the aforementioned incidents of ethnic unrest involving Uyghurs and Tibetans. During this restive period, as many as 90 percent of them received prison sentences longer than five years, including an unknown number of people who might have received the maximum sentence of death.

However, the same trend was not reflected in inciting splittism cases. Chart 7 shows that although nearly half of the defendants received longer prison sentences in 2009, the number dropped to 32 percent in 2010 and 34 percent in 2013.

The Publicity Department of Shache County in Xinjiang reported that 840,000 people from different ethnic groups took oaths to fight against extremism and splittism before the Chinese Communist Party flag, following a deadly terror attack which occurred in the city on July 28, 2014. Image credit: China News

Severe punishments were meted out in both splittism and inciting splittism cases in 2014. Nine out of every 10 splittism defendants received long prison sentences, as did eight out of every 10 defendants for inciting splittism. In that year, state-run Xinhua News Agency called the frenzied violence at a crowded train station in Kunming, Yunnan, “China’s 9/11.” The attack was allegedly committed by Uyghur separatists.

Social Backgrounds

The SPC statistics also provide interesting insights into the social backgrounds of defendants with judgments taking effect. Notable observations gleaned from the statistics include:

  • A substantial portion of splittism and inciting splittism cases appeared to concern rural grievances. Chart 8 shows that from 1998-2016, over 70 percent of people convicted of splittism were farmers, whereas farmers made up half of the defendants convicted of inciting splittism.

  • Classified as a sub-category of farmers in the court statistics, migrant workers emerged as a numerically significant group in 2009. Of the 322 individuals convicted for splittism, 113 were migrant workers. In that year, a violent dispute between migrant Uyghurs and Han Chinese workers from June 25-26 at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong, triggered the days-long riots that broke out in Urumqi on July 5.

    Unemployed (370) and private business owners (355, including self-employed), came in a distant second and third place, respectively.

  • Women committed splittism and inciting splittism at a fraction of the rate of men. Only 118, or less than three percent, of all the 4,238 people convicted of the two crimes were women.

  • Women have received harsh prison sentences. For instance, Gulmire Imin was sentenced to life imprisonment for splittism in April 2010; she is not known to have received a sentence reduction. The Chinese government accused her of calling on Uyghurs to join the protests in Urumqi in July 2009. 

  • Splittism and inciting splittism were disproportionately applied to ethnic minorities. Of the 4,283 convicted individuals, 3,936, or 92 percent, were ethnic minorities. 

Read Part II to learn about the two main ethnic minority groups in splittism and inciting splittism cases: Uyghurs and Tibetans