Thursday, July 16, 2020

Court Statistics on Splittism & Inciting Splittism, Part II: Uyghurs & Tibetans

The following has been posted to Dui Hua's Human Rights Journal. It is the second 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.

In Part I, Dui Hua discussed the application of splittism and inciting splittism from 1998-2016, examining how the trends and sentencing corresponded to major incidents of ethnic unrest in China. The court statistics also indicated that splittism and inciting splittism were disproportionately used against ethnic minorities, but a breakdown of ethnicities is not available. 

Part II focuses on two major ethnic groups who are more likely to face trial for splittism and inciting splittism: Uyghurs and Tibetans.


Individuals who are convicted of splittism or inciting splittism are predominantly Uyghurs. Parts of today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region briefly enjoyed independence in the two decades before 1949. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent emergence of independent Muslim nations in Central Asia rekindled Uyghurs’ desire to establish an independent state of their own. To curb the emerging separatist sentiments, China launched its first “strike hard” campaign in Xinjiang in 1996 following large-scale protests, bombings, and killings of government cadres. Thousands of Uyghurs suspected of violence and separatism were reportedly rounded up, and hundreds were executed.

The following year, the Chinese government suppressed the Uyghur uprising in Ghulja, which was sparked by the news that as many as 30 Uyghur independence activists were executed and of the prohibition on traditional Uyghur gatherings known as meshrep. A large but unknown number of people were charged with the counterrevolutionary crime of “conspiring to split the country.” In 1997, Xinjiang concluded 83 counterrevolution cases of first instance, accounting for 30 percent of all counterrevolution cases nationwide.
Sources: Dui Hua, Xinjiang Yearbook, Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016
Dui Hua’s research into government records confirmed that Xinjiang made up an even bigger portion of political cases in China after counterrevolutionary crimes were expunged in the 1997 Criminal Law. From 1998-2003, at least half of endangering state security (ESS) cases were concluded every year in Xinjiang; the number even increased to two-thirds in 2001 and 2003. Between 1996 and 2003, there was an average of two to four defendants per trial. Figures from 2004-2007 are not available.

Despite global attention to the suppression of the Tibetan Riots in 2008, Xinjiang remained the epicenter of ESS cases. Government sources also revealed that Xinjiang made up 67 percent of ESS cases nationwide in that year. From 2009-2010, three quarters of China’s ESS cases were tried in Xinjiang.

Based on analysis of annual work reports disclosed by Xinjiang’s high court from time to time, Dui Hua estimated that Xinjiang concluded approximately 300 ESS case each year from 2013-2014. During this period, Xinjiang continued to account for about 75 percent of the ESS cases in China. The number of Xinjiang ESS trials dropped to 100 cases in 2015. This drop coincided with the overall decline in ESS cases nationwide beginning in the same year. The same work report also reveals that trials for crimes that cover "terrorism" surged by about 25 percent in 2015. Dui Hua believes that many of the trials for terrorism crimes had previously been handled as ESS trials.

Most, if not all, of these ESS cases were splittism or inciting splittism, and a large portion of them took place in west Xinjiang. For instance, government sources confirmed that more than 60 percent of Xinjiang's most serious ESS cases between 2001-2009 were tried in Kashgar. In 2009 alone, Kashgar courts handled 49 ESS cases involving 225 defendants. Among them, 33 cases involving 171 defendants concerned separatist organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (伊扎布特) and Hijrah Jihad (伊吉拉特).

In recent years, government reporting often conflates splittism and inciting splittism cases with terrorism-related crimes, making it impossible for observers to discern how many people were convicted for non-violent expressions of dissent. The Supreme People’s Court reported that 712 people were convicted of inciting splittism, terrorism, and other violent crimes in 2014, an increase of 13.3 percent compared to 2013. Alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hijrah Jihad are often charged with splittism, inciting splittism, and terrorism. The identities, acts, and fates of these people remain largely unknown.

This is not to suggest that peaceful dissenters are necessarily treated more leniently than people convicted of violent crimes. Uyghurs who openly oppose Xinjiang independence remain at great risk of facing lengthy prison sentences for the two ESS crimes if they refuse to toe the party line or are critical of China’s ethnic policy. Notable examples include:

Gheyret Niyaz in a screengrab from the now-defunct Image credit: Radio Free Asia
  • Gheyret Niyaz, a journalist who was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with five years’ deprivation of political rights for inciting splittism in July 2010. Despite openly opposing Xinjiang independence and holding moderate political views, Gheyret was accused of speaking to foreign media about the 2009 Urumqi Riots. In the interview, he blamed Hizb ut-Tahrir for orchestrating the riots and estimated that the group had nearly 20,000 members in Xinjiang. He also urged his government contacts to take precautions against a potential outbreak of violence in advance of the demonstration planned for July 5, 2009

  • However, the prosecutors focused on his critical essays about Mandarin-focused bilingual education policies, which he said had resulted in widespread layoffs of Uyghur teachers. He also opposed a government program to transfer Uyghur women to jobs in the interior of China because Uyghur communities feared that the programs would result in prostitution and intermarriage. He is not known to have received a sentence reduction over a decade into his sentence and is scheduled for release in October 2024.

Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment for splittism by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court on September 23, 2014. Image credit:
  • Ilham Tohti, arguably the most prominent Uyghur prisoner, was sentenced to life imprisonment for splittism in September 2014. The scholar rejected violence and independence but argued that the Uyghur population has been largely left out of Xinjiang’s economic development and routinely face discrimination. He was accused of colluding with the East Turkestan Independence Movement and promoting ethnic separatism on, a website he founded to reconcile differences between Han and Uyghurs.

  • Over the years, Dui Hua has been advocating for clemency and better treatment on behalf of non-violent Uyghur activists who were sentenced for splittism or inciting splittism. Our research indicated that clemency provided to ESS prisoners has a clear ethnic bias: Han Chinese convicted of espionage and supplying foreign entities with state secrets are more likely to receive clemency than Uyghurs convicted of splittism and inciting splittism, despite all these crimes being categorized under ESS.
One noteworthy development is that Uyghur splittism and inciting splittism cases are not just confined to Xinjiang. Some of these Uyghurs were job seekers or students who pursued tertiary education in Han-majority cities. Evidence also suggests that some of these cases were related to Hijrah Jihad, which means “migration” and “holy war.” This group encourages members to leave their hometowns to proselytize.
  • Dui Hua previously reported that two Uyghurs were detained in Pingdingshan, Henan, in 2012 for ESS crimes: Adili Tursun was allegedly as one of 61 fugitives of “three forces” (i.e., separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism), while Iliyar Kublati was charged with inciting splittism.
  • Another duo in their early twenties were also indicted for inciting splittism in Henan but were tried in Jilin. Eli Exmet continues to serve his eight years’ sentence in a prison in Changchun until November 2020, while Paziniye completed her five years’ prison sentence in 2019.
  • Fujian’s Nanping Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Ailaijiang Abuliti to seven years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in December 2015. The judgment only stated that he was given a five-month sentence reduction in June 2019 because of good behavior. 
  • In 2016, Guangdong tried an inciting splittism case involving Warisjan Ghopur. No government responses have been provided to Dui Hua despite repeated inquiries about the case.

The Tibetan regions are widely considered to be trouble spots. Mounting resentment against Beijing began after China reasserted control of Tibet in 1950. Outbreaks of armed resistance, which culminated in the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959, compelled the Dalai Lama to escape to Dharamsala, India, where he currently lives as a refugee. 

Protests in the Tibetan regions are typically initiated by monks calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, and are joined by lay people supporting the same cause. Over the past decades, Chinese policies within Tibet have shifted from relatively liberal to repressive and back again. The 1980s were a period of relative tolerance in Tibet: Beijing briefly allowed temples and monasteries to reopen, and the Tibetan language was reintroduced in schools. However, China tightened its policy after then-Tibet party secretary Hu Jintao violently suppressed large-scale anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa in honor of the 30th anniversary of the 1959 uprising. Martial law was declared on March 8, 1989 and lasted about two years. 

Chinese rule in Tibet remained largely repressive in the 1990s. Monks and nuns who were serving sentences for counterrevolution coordinated large numbers of prisoners to join hunger strikes, shout campaigns, and to chant pro-independence slogans. They also sought to solicit international attention from visiting diplomats. The most severe crackdown on prison protests took place after demonstrations in Drapchi, Tibet’s largest prison, on May 1 and May 4 in 1998. On both occasions, prisoners who were ordered by Chinese officials to celebrate the socialist achievements in Tibet shouted political slogans just ahead of a visit by a delegation from the European Union. Defiant prisoners were reportedly dealt with by deadly force and given sentence extensions for inciting splittism.

Tibetan prisoners convicted of splittism and inciting splittism were largely peaceful, but in some cases, they received additional sentencing for violent crimes. One notable example is Tenzin Delek, who was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve for inciting splittism and setting explosions in December 2002. A respectable leader among Tibetans in eastern Sichuan who had spoken out against deforestation, the monk was accused of staging a series of bombings in Chengdu. Tenzin Delek also denied the charges against him, human rights groups said in 2004, citing a recording smuggled out of prison. Tenzin Delek died in July 2015 while serving his sentence in Chuangdong Prison.

Tibetan monks clashed with armed police during the Lhasa riots in 2008, which the Chinese government saw as a separatist movement plotted by the Dalai Lama. Image credit: CCTV
The impact on ESS cases of the Lhasa Riots, which began on March 14 just months ahead of the Beijing Olympics, cannot be overstated. As noted earlier in this post, 67 percent of China’s ESS cases were concluded in Xinjiang. That said, a portion of ESS cases involved young Tibetans who questioned the path of non-violence promoted by the Dalai Lama and resorted to violence to express political grievances. Foreign journalists reported cases where Tibetan rioters focused on setting fire to and looting businesses owned by Han Chinese and Hui.

Two weeks into the protests, China brought a delegation of foreign journalists to Lhasa to allow independent reporting from the Tibetan capital. Several dozen monks at the Jokhang temple protested in front of the foreign reporters and yelled “We want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, we want to be free.” Some of these monks were likely charged with or sentenced for ESS, including splittism and inciting splittism. Reliable arrest figures are not available.

Amid the outbreak of the Tibetan protests, filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen joined the ranks of political prisoners because of his independent coverage of the tensions in Tibet. He produced a 25-minute documentary “Leaving Fear Behind,” in which he interviewed Tibetans about their hopes and frustrations living under Chinese rule. His footage was smuggled overseas before he disappeared into detention on March 26, 2008. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in December 2009 and completed his full sentence without a sentence reduction on June 5, 2014. In December 2017, he fled China and was reunited with his family in the United States who had been granted political asylum there.

The spate of self-immolations in the Tibetan regions, which began in 2009, brought into sharp relief the despair and defiance of Tibetans. Some Tibetans see these acts as altruistic suicide committed in order to not cause material damage or inflict physical harm on others. State-run news media reported at least two cases of inciting splittism in connection to the self-immolation protests:
  • A court in Qinghai sentenced Phagpa to 13 years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism and murder in February 2013. Phagpa allegedly encouraged a monk to set himself ablaze for the Tibetan cause. In November 2012, Phagpa organized pro-independence demonstrations in Tongren County and was found in possession of a large number of “Snow Lion Flags” and photos of the Tibetan government in exile. In this case, the crime of inciting splittism alone carried five years’ imprisonment.
Due to limited information available, it is hard to estimate the number of splittism and inciting splittism cases throughout all Tibetan regions, which span not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region but also parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, and Yunnan. Although comprehensive data of arrests, indictments, and trials for splittism and inciting splittism across all Tibetan regions are not available, piecemeal figures from government sources suggest that Tibetan cases came in a distant second after Xinjiang:
Self-immolation protests by Tibetans have not stopped; the latest incident was reported on November 26, 2019. At the same time as the rate of occurrence has slowed down, considerably fewer political cases in the Tibetan regions have been reported over the past few years. 

One of the most well-known cases over the past few years concerns Tashi Wangchuk. Like some of the previously discussed Uyghur cases, promoting or discussing independence for Tibet is not a requisite for conviction. Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in May 2018 because of the interviews he gave to The New York Times. In the interviews, he explicitly stated that he was not calling for Tibetan independence; rather, he expressed worries about the disappearance of the Tibetan language because Chinese authorities have been prohibiting the use of Tibetan in spheres ranging from schools to commerce. He is scheduled for release from Qinghai’s Dongchuan Prison in January 2021.

In Part III, Dui Hua examines two other ethnic groups who have also faced trials for splittism and inciting splittism: ethnic Mongols and Han Chinese.