The following has been posted to Dui Hua's Human Rights Journal. It is the third 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.
Part I examined the application of splittism and inciting splittism from 1998-2016 as it corresponded to major incidents of ethnic unrest in China.
Part II focused on two ethnic groups who are more likely to face trial for splittism and inciting splittism: Uyghurs and Tibetans. Court statistics discussed in both parts indicate that splittism and inciting splittism charges were disproportionately used against ethnic minorities. However, a breakdown of ethnicities is not available.
Compared to Uyghurs and Tibetans, Mongolian splittism is rarely discussed in state discourse, perhaps reflecting its status as a smaller security threat to China. An important reason is that ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia have been heavily assimilated with Han Chinese. Despite Inner Mongolia’s designation as China’s first autonomous region, ethnic Mongols have long been greatly outnumbered by Han Chinese in the region. The 2010 census indicated that ethnic Mongols accounted for a mere 17 percent of the population in Inner Mongolia, compared to 80 percent Han.
Signs of Mongolian nationalism emerged among university students in the 1980s. While some preferred political separation and the establishment of an independent Inner Mongolian state, others promoted unity with Mongolia and the ethnic Mongols in Russia. Separatist sentiments were further rekindled by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although there were demonstrations in Inner Mongolia in 1990 in favor of independence, key figures were quickly arrested. In 1991, leaders of a group based near Hohhot were sentenced to two years for separatist activity, according to British Sinologist Michael Dillon. In the same year, Mongol independence activist Xi Haiming (席海明) fled persecution in China to Mongolia and was granted political asylum in Germany in 1993.
|Hada (left), founder of the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for splittism and espionage in 1996. Image credit: Radio Free Asia|
Perhaps the most iconic case was Hada (哈达). Unlike Xi Haiming, Hada chose to stay in Inner Mongolia to continue his peaceful activism and formed the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance with other Mongol activists in 1992. The alliance’s mission was to oppose colonization by the Han people and call for self-determination, freedom, and democracy in Southern Mongolia. He was later sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for conspiring to split the country and espionage. Having completed his full sentence without a sentence reduction in December 2010, Hada continues to live under close police surveillance and numerous restrictions, including a travel ban and frozen bank accounts.
Other than Hada, cases of ethnic Mongolian splittism have not been widely reported or well documented. Dui Hua’s research into government gazettes unearthed only a few cases of endangering state security:
- In 1992, 11 of the 197 people classified as the “targeted population” in Ordos were splittists;
- In 1996, Ordos police solved the case of the illegal ethnic splittism publication Dure and the case of the “Ordos Branch of the Southern Mongolia Democratic League Central Committee” ethnic splittism organization. Police quickly uncovered and stopped a small number of Mongol students who were carrying out efforts in support of Hada’s “Southern Mongolia Democratic League;”
- In 2009, two of the 18 people classified as the targeted population in Urad Rear Banner were “ethnic splittists.”
Large-scale ethnic Mongol protests erupted in 2011; they were triggered by collective grievances over the ecological destruction of grasslands as a result of excessive mining operations dominated by Han-owned entities in Inner Mongolia. Pro-independence groups overseas also pointed out that the protests had nothing to do with self-determination or independence but were focused on legal rights for indigenous herders. Beijing, however, still blamed foreign forces for fueling unrest among ethnic Mongols.
Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database only has information on four ethnic Mongols who were convicted of inciting splittism over the past two decades.
- On October 29, 2008, the Xining Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Quehezhou (却合周) and E’erjian (俄尔尖) to nine and ten years in prison, respectively. They were both detained on April 16, 2008. The timing of their detention coincided with the protests which spread across the Tibetan plateau before the Beijing Olympics.
- Lobsang Gongpo (洛藏公保) was likely involved in the same case; he was sentenced to ten years in prison by the same court on the same day. Despite his Tibetan-sounding name, Lobsang Gongpo is an ethnic Mongol, according to a court judgment Dui Hua discovered online.
Quehezhou, E’erjian and Lobsang Gongpo are all from Henan Mongol Autonomous County, an ethnic Mongol-majority county in the south of Huanggang Tibetan Autonomous Precture in Qinghai Province. The judgments did not provide further information about the case.
- In July 2019, Lhamjab A. Borigin received a one-year suspended prison sentence in Shili Yin Gool for splittism and illegal business activity. The charges stemmed from his book written in Mongolian about the Cultural Revolution. Published in 2006 by an underground press and subsequently translated into Mandarin, the book discloses survivor testimonies and details torture techniques used during political campaigns.
Court statistics have confirmed that splittism and inciting splittism have been disproportionately applied to ethnic minorities, but no less striking is the remainder of the defendants who are not classified as ethnic minorities. Dui Hua believes that these people are Han Chinese.
Charts 1 and 2 show that of the 3,936 people convicted of splittism and inciting splittism with judgments taking effect from 1998-2016, 347, or 8.8 percent, were not ethnic minorities. There was a slightly bigger proportion of non-ethnic minorities in inciting splittism cases: 155 people, or 14 percent, in inciting splittism cases, compared to 192, or just 6.5 percent, in splittism cases.
In inciting splittism cases, the number of non-ethnic minority defendants varied from 1.6 percent in 2001 to 83 percent of all defendants in 2012. In 2006, slightly over half of the 13 people convicted of inciting splittism were not ethnic minorities; in 2012, 15 of 18 people convicted were Han Chinese.
Unlike Uyghurs, Tibetans, and, to a lesser extent, ethnic Mongols who are imprisoned for promoting ethnic independence, demanding genuine or greater autonomy, or criticizing China’s ethnic policy, the reasons for convicting Han Chinese in splittism or inciting splittism cases are not immediately obvious.
Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database only has information on one Han Chinese who was convicted of inciting splittism: Wang Jicheng (王集成) was sentenced to eight years in prison in Nanping, Fujian, in December 2009 for inciting splittism, inciting subversion, and teaching methods of committing crimes. In this case, Wang was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting splittism. A judgment Dui Hua discovered indicated that Wang was released on December 25, 2015, more than seven months earlier than the original release date, without providing information on his criminal acts, which were said to have incited other people to divide China.
A case recently posted by Wei Quan Wang shed some light on the obscure cases of Han Chinese inciting splittism. Originally from Wuhan, Li Ke stood trial in Xining, Qinghai, where he was caught red-handed displaying a “Free Tibet” banner and a Snow Lion flag at a Tibetan monastery. The source also said Li was found in possession of a U-drive with images of overseas Tibetan protesters disrupting the 2008 Olympic Torch relay. The trial outcome is nevertheless unclear.
The following two cases show how Han Chinese can be at risk of being accused of inciting splittism because of their online speech, although neither was found guilty of this particular ESS crime:
- Huang Qi (黄琦) was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in February 2003. Prosecutors moved forward with the inciting splittism charge against Huang because his website contained articles about ethnic independence. The court dismissed the inciting splittism charge and upheld that Huang did not have the intent to divide the country since he did not author the articles.
- Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for inciting ethnic hatred, picking quarrels, and provoking trouble in December 2015. The initial allegations against him included inciting splittism, a charge stemming from his negative online comments about China’s policies in Xinjiang. Pu urged China to stop treating Xinjiang as a colony and to stop acting as a conqueror and plunderer.
The developments in Taiwan might be relevant to understand how China curbs separatism among Han Chinese in the mainland. Dui Hua, however, has yet to find proof that promoting Taiwan independence is a reason for conviction in cases of splittism or inciting splittism in mainland China.
Over the years, Beijing has proactively blocked Taiwan in the international arena in a bid to suppress independence. China typically undertakes countermeasures and ramps up rhetoric against the Taiwan independence movement when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) becomes the majority ruling party in Taiwan. A year after Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was re-elected as Taiwan president, China ratified the Anti-Succession Law in 2005. The law claims that Taiwan is a part of China and suggests the use of non-peaceful means against Taiwan independence in the event of a declaration of independence.
Evidence suggests that Han Chinese are not necessarily criminally liable for discussing Taiwan independence online. A court judgment Dui Hua discovered indicated that Wang Yong (王勇) was only given “admonishment” in Shandong for posting messages on Twitter to “incite Taiwan independence.” Wang was not imprisoned for tweets about Taiwan independence, but rather for the 1,200 “anti-Communist Party” messages and images he tweeted as of August 14, 2019. In January 2020, Wang was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
China has been increasingly wary of the newly emerged independence movement in Hong Kong. Beginning with the student-led movement in 2014 calling for the right to vote for their chief executive, the calls for independence have become more visible in the wake of the civil unrest through the second half of 2019 triggered by the ill-fated extradition bill.
|A man found carrying a "Hong Kong Independence" flag in his backpack during a protest on July 1, 2020 was the first person arrested under the Hong Kong National Security Law. Netizens said that the flag said "no to" (反对) in tiny print above the independence slogan. The man has been released without formal charges at the time of publication. Image credit: Hong Kong Police Force Twitter account|
As the coronavirus outbreak subsided from May-June 2020, throngs of demonstrators chanting pro-democracy slogans and displaying banners saying “Hong Kong Independence” and “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” returned to the city’s streets and shopping malls. Chinese officials condemned the Hong Kong protesters as a “political virus” using violence to promote independence claims.The Hong Kong government has also declared that the protest slogans are pro-independence, secessionist and subversive, and can be prosecuted under the newly enacted national security law, which came into force on June 30, 2020.
Openly supporting Hong Kong independence in the mainland is a risky proposition, but this act alone does not necessarily constitute a crime of ESS. Dui Hua’s research into online judgments found that Twitter user Tang Guogang (唐国刚) was sentenced to 18 months in prison, also for “picking quarrels,” in Liaoning in December 2019. His imprisonment stemmed in part from his messages supporting the independence of both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The court also found him guilty of tweeting hundreds of “subversive” messages attacking China, the Communist Party, and the socialist system.
In a separate case, a local court in Foshan, Guangdong, sentenced Deng Xiqiang (邓锡强) to two years in prison (suspended for three years) on January 20, 2020, also for “picking quarrels.” Deng was accused of using circumvention software to access Instagram and post 48 messages, which “attacked the socialist system, satirized Chinese leaders, and vilified the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s government.” The court also found him guilty of posting “unhealthy and fake” information about Hong Kong independence. Other allegations against Deng included the “yellow umbrella” accessories he designed in support of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Movement in 2014.
The two cases above were concluded before the National People’s Congress passed national security legislation on June 30, 2020. The law, which covers secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, signals a harsher crackdown to crush the Hong Kong independence movement. It remains to be seen whether mainland courts will mete out more severe punishment to deter dissenters who publicly express sympathy for the Hong Kong cause under the catch-all crime of “picking quarrels.” It is also possible that the same acts conducted online will be construed as endangering state security amid a worsening political climate.
Minor splittism movements
There are a few other minor splittism movements in China advocating for provincial independence, but the threat is more apparent than real. Individuals who promote this cause are not known to have been charged with splittism or inciting splittism:
|The Haizhu District People's Court convicted Yang Xubin (杨旭彬) of "picking quarrels" for spray painting graffiti slogans, including "Liberate Guangzhou" and "Guangdong independence," as shown in the image of a court judgment posted online. The court did not explain why the slogans did not amount to splittism or other endangering national security crimes. Image credit: China Political Prisoner Concern|
- Yang Xubin (杨旭彬), of Han ethnicity, was sentenced to nine months in prison for “picking quarrels” in January 2020. He spray-painted graffiti of slogans in Guangzhou about the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong and also daubed slogans of “Free Guangzhou” and “Guangdong Independence.”
- In a separate case, Wang Zhan (王展) was detained for subversion on October 15, 2019 upon returning to China from Finland, where he pursued his post-doctorate study. Wang, whose ethnicity is unclear, was an advocate for independence for Manchuria and Shanghai.
It is hard to understand the rationale behind the tactics of criminalization against Han Chinese supporters of any independence movement. The above cases demonstrated that splittism and inciting splittism are not necessarily applicable even when Han Chinese openly criticize China’s ethnic policy or disseminate information about independence for Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other less developed provincial independence movements. Because of the opacity of China’s criminal justice system, the identities, acts, and fates of the 347 Han Chinese who were convicted of splittism and inciting splittism from 1998-2016 remain unknown.
What is clear is that the application of splittism and inciting splittism charges has an ethnic bias. Similar acts to split or incite splittism by Uyghurs, Tibetans, or ethnic Mongols are more likely to lead to more severe consequences. Instead of “picking quarrels,” they will likely be charged with splittism and inciting splittism—crimes of endangering state security, which China gives utmost priority and carry much harsher prison sentences.
On a final note, the drop in splittism and inciting splittism cases beginning in 2014 is no cause for celebration. In an upcoming post, Dui Hua will analyze the reasons and explain how the Chinese government has employed new tactics of criminalization against ethnic minority dissenters: from using splittism and inciting splittism to non-ESS crimes, including terrorism-related crimes and inciting ethnic hatred.
China’s propaganda often denounces western critics for their “hypocrisy” and defends its own anti-splittism law by drawing comparisons with separatist movements in the west. While it is true that punishing splittism-adjacent crimes through other laws, including anti-terrorism measures, are in place in western democracies to suppress separatism, people in many countries and regions other than China and Hong Kong are at least “free to express secessionist views.” In Spain, political parties that support the independence of Catalonia are represented in the parliament. By contrast, China has zero tolerance for political parties that promote splittism. It also makes peaceful speech punishable under splittism, inciting splittism, or other criminal offenses.