Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Crimes of Extremism, Part II: Harsh Sentences, Low Transparency in Xinjiang

A Chinese propaganda poster denouncing extremism. In 2018, the poster went viral after a social media user noticed that one of the poster’s images condemning Islamic facial hair featured actor Keanu Reeves, who does not identify as Muslim. Image credit: Reddit via Taiwan News 

Read Part I here.

Although ethnic minorities make up the majority of the extremism cases, there is a dearth of publicly available information about them, particularly those of the Islamic faith. Court judgments and judicial decisions like this in Xinjiang are deemed to be highly sensitive; they were almost never posted online even before the purge on China Judgements Online started in June 2021. Overseas news media sources have reported on a few cases, but it is impossible to grasp the whole picture due to the tight control on information flows in the region. In most cases, media reports did not explicitly state which specific extremism crimes were invoked.   

Radio Free Asia (RFA) is among the overseas news media groups which have occasionally covered extremism cases over the years. In September 2017, a Uyghur woman named Horigul Nasir was reportedly sentenced to 10 years in prison in Kashgar, presumably for extremism because she allegedly told one of her friends that not wearing a headscarf is sinful. The allegation, however, has been disputed by her brother, who claimed that his sister does not even wear a headscarf or pray five times a day.  

In another case also reported by RFA, a Uyghur businessman named Ekber Imin is serving a 25-year prison sentence for an unspecified extremism crime alongside two of his brothers. They were reportedly convicted for having foreign contacts and spreading extremism by incorporating ethnic and religious elements in the buildings they developed.  

In March 2022, RFA reported that Abdureshid Obul died in 2020 while serving his eight-year prison sentence for an extremism crime. The Uyghur farmer was reportedly jailed for having a fourth child and relocating his pregnant wife to avoid a forced abortion. Ethnic minority families living in rural areas are limited to two children. Authorities considered Abdureshid’s violation of the family planning policy to be an act of extremism.  

(Top) Horigul Nasir’s identification card. (Bottom) A photo of Ekber Imin’s passport page. Image credits: RFA listeners via RFA 

The harsh punishments given to the aforementioned Uyghurs are by no means isolated incidents. Dui Hua’s research into Chinese government sources found evidence of Muslim minorities receiving excessive punishment for committing extremism crimes in Xinjiang. For instance, Dui Hua discovered a case in which a Uyghur prisoner had his prison sentence extended by 15 years in July 2017 for violating Article 120(3). He was already serving his seven-year prison sentence for Article 300 “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” It is unclear which “cult organization” he had joined leading to his initial conviction. The court ordered him to serve a total prison sentence of 19 years and 8 months, which included the 56-month sentence for Article 300 he had yet to complete. After his prison sentence expires in 2036, he must still serve a supplemental deprivation of political rights sentence of five years. 

It would be a mistake to assume that only Uyghurs are singled out for excessive criminal punishment. An ethnic Dongxiang surnamed Chen received a 10-year prison sentence for Article 120(3) with a deprivation of political rights sentence of three years in Nilka County in July 2018. As with almost all other cases of a similar nature, there is no information about the acts that led to his harsh prison sentence. 

Two Rare Judgments 

Despite being unable to find an extremism judgment in Xinjiang, where the majority of extremism cases are tried and heavy sentences are meted out, Dui Hua found two rare judgments in other provinces. Dongxiang are among the Muslim communities who have faced restrictions in and outside of Xinjiang, but very little information is known about the crackdown on this ethnic group. The case of Ma Yinglong (马英龙) in Beijing indicates that besides growing beards, conducting regular prayer or unauthorized religious classes, or fasting for Ramadan, Islamic booksellers are another target of China’s crackdown on extremism. 

A picture of the opening ceremony of a Xinjiang re-education camp, posted online by the government in Korla, Xinjiang in June 2018. The partially obscured sign on the left reads “Transformation Through Education Center” (教育转化中心 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà zhōngxīn). Image credit Korla government via SupChina 

Ma is a native from Xinjiang’s Yining County. He was convicted of Article 120(3) and sentenced to 13 months in prison by Beijing’s Haidian District People’s Court in September 2017. The crime stemmed from him running an Islamic bookstore which sold books about Islam and related topics. Additionally, he administered his website, which offered a number of Islamic religious items including Malaysian-made hijabs and other clothing, Islamic arts and crafts, and halal food items, according to reporting from unofficial news media sources. 

The court judgment focused on one title he sold: Milestones: Ma'alim Fi'l Tariq. This book was written by Egyptian Islamic author Sayyid Qutb, who calls for the re-creation of the Muslim world on strictly Quranic grounds to counter western influence. Qutb is seen by some observers as one of the formative, leading theorists of violent jihad. Unbeknownst to Ma, the Chinese version of this book had been classified in China as an illegal publication about terrorism and extremism. Ma stated in his defense that he had not read the book; he only procured a total of six copies of Milestones at the request of his customers. The court rejected Ma’s defense because “he should have known about the extremely harmful nature of the book” considering he had many years of experience selling Islamic books. 

In another case, Dui Hua found that Uyghur businessman Erkin Balat was sentenced to 22 months in prison for Article 120(6) in Shandong. Erkin moved to Qufu from Xinjiang to start his jade business in 2007. In early 2017, he was found in possession of 50 Uyghur-language books, one Uyghur-Arabic dictionary and one Arabic-language Quran, which became evidence of him possessing articles to promote extremism. Some of the Uyghur titles touched on topics such as the history of Islam. Other evidence included two Japanese sabres and one Arabian scimitar he displayed in one of his shops. Erkin completed his prison sentence on March 8, 2021. 

Same Acts, Different Outcomes

In Part I, Dui Hua discussed how Han come into conflict with the law for extremism, including by possessing or circulating videos with scenes of violence in connection to the “East Turkestan Independence Movement,” ISIS, or the Taliban. Chinese law criminalizes such behavior regardless of ethnicity, but in practice there is a clear ethnic bias in sentencing. The same acts committed by Uyghurs or other Muslim minority groups are more likely to result in harsher criminal punishments. Precedents indicated that the same audio-visual evidence is almost certainly construed by prosecutors and judges to contain messages about “jihad” and “hijrat” (i.e. migration to another place for the sake of Allah) where the defendants practice Islam. In such cases, other crimes such as splittism, inciting splittism, and/or organizing or participating in a terrorist organization are often tacked on to the allegations of extremism.  

Screenshot from a 2019 CGTN program titled Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang. Image credit: CGTN 

While Muslims in Western countries have been given prison sentences for viewing, disseminating, or producing films containing extremist material, these cases have typically been handled with greater transparency to hold law enforcements accountable for their decisions and ensure that their counterterrorism measures are non-arbitrary and impartial. In cases where this might not be possible, such as the CIA’s use of black sites to interrogate suspected terrorist actors or other “enemy combatants,” civil society organizations and independent journalism efforts can provide a degree of scrutiny.  

By contrast, cases in China are selectively transparent at best, as in many publicized cases of Han. The vast majority of ethnic minority cases remain shrouded in secrecy. Limited available evidence on Uyghurs and other ethnic groups suggests that the acts are more diverse, but they all resolve around the expression of Islam. Muslims are also much more likely to receive disproportionately severe sentences for the same crimes than the Han counterparts. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Crimes of Extremism, Part I: Observations on Use and Sentencing

Screenshot from a 2019 CGTN program titled Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang. Image credit: CGTN 

Extremism, officially defined in Chinese law as the “ideological basis of terrorism”, or more broadly, “inciting hatred, discrimination or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means, has long been integral to China’s security policy against the “three evil forces” (i.e terrorism, splittism, and religious extremism). However, it was not a precisely defined legal term until the following provisions were added in 2015 under Article 120 of the Criminal Law, “organizing, leading, and actively participating in a terrorist organization:” 

  • Article 120(3): Promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities;  
  • Article 120(4): Using extremism to undermine implementation of the law; 
  • Article 120(5): Coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism;
  • Article 120(6): Illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism

Reporting by overseas news media sources suggests that the four new crimes are most typically invoked against Uyghurs. The crimes have been criticized by United Nations’ special rapporteurs and working groups for being overly vague with no basis in binding international legal standards. Human rights groups have also said that many of the extremism arrests are made without evidentiary basis and authorities frequently fail to respect the due process rights of detainees.  

This is the first installment in a two-part series which discusses Dui Hua’s observations on extremism, with a focus on Article 120(3) and (6). Part I discusses the extent of the crimes’ application and sentencing trends, drawing on the 2016 statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court. Individuals charged with and convicted of extremism crimes are not exclusively members of ethnic minority groups, despite their accounting for most of the cases. Extremism cases are selectively published in Chinese government sources. Those involving Han are notably well documented, and only rarely do they receive lengthy prison sentences. Part II focuses on cases involving Muslim minorities. Hefty punishments appear commonplace in Xinjiang, but information on prisoners pre- and post-sentencing is extremely limited.  

Court Statistics One Year After Expansion

According to the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, China tried 1,403 extremism cases involving 2,463 defendants in 2016. Of them, 2,031, or 82 percent, were ethnic minorities. Additionally, 85 percent of the defendants were farmers. As Xinjiang has been cast as a key battlefield in the fight against extremism, it would be natural to assume that the charges are predominantly leveled against Muslim minorities.  

Table 1. Court statistics on extremism crimes for 2016

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

Two-thirds of the defendants violated Article 120(3) “promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities.” Slightly over one quarter were tried for Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism.” About five percent, or 124 people, were tried for Article 120(4) “using extremism to undermine implantation of the law.” Only 18 people were tried in 17 cases of Article 120(5) “coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism” in 2016. 

Of the four extremism crimes, Article 120(3) is most likely to result in lengthy prison sentences. Among the 1,669 people who received criminal punishment for this crime, 1,109, or 66 percent, received prison sentences of five years or more. By contrast, a much bigger portion of people who are tried for Article 120 (4), (5) and (6) received prison sentences below five years. The use of non-custodial punishment in all extremism cases was rare. Only 70 people convicted of the four extremism crimes were given suspended sentences or control (guanzhi). 

Members of China’s largest ethnic group, Han, are not immune to the crackdown on extremism. The court statistics indicated that 422, or 17 percent, of the 2,463 people tried for the new extremism crimes in 2016 were Han. Of them, 198 were tried for Article 120(3) “promoting terrorism, or extremism or instigating terrorist activities,” 172 for Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism,” 59 for Article 120(4) “using extremism to undermine implantation of the law,” and two for Article 120(5) “coercing other people into wearing costumes or symbols to promote terrorism or extremism.” 

Han Cases

Han extremism cases are easily searchable in Chinese government and media sources. Their cases rarely result in lengthy prison sentences. Dui Hua found 18 cases tried in Beijing which invoked Article 120(3) or (6) from 2017-2021. There were 19 defendants, of whom 11 were Han, one ethnic Manchu, and one Dongxiang. Ethnicity is not always specified in the judgments. None of the Han defendants in Beijing received prison sentences of more than one year, and the lengthiest sentence of two years was given to a duo whose ethnicity is not specified. 

The circumstances of the publicly disclosed extremism cases in other Han-majority provinces are almost identical: they are accused of disseminating violent and terrorist videos they downloaded from overseas websites with the use of a VPN. The videos, typically filmed in the Middle East, contain scenes of violence with prisoners of war beheaded or executed, footage of Islamic State or sometimes Taliban attacks, training, and fighting. The defendants unwittingly commit Article 120(3) when they share the videos with their friends, post them on social media, or put them in cloud storage.  

A screenshot of a 2015 tweet from Mashable on Chinese-language ISIS propaganda. Image credit: Mashable Twitter account 

Most Han defendants are not religious, and they are depicted to have been driven by curiosity to download or share the violent videos. In some cases, they are convicted for simply poking fun at terrorist organizations or figures. In December 2019, news media sources reported that a man surnamed Zhang was sentenced to nine months in prison in Beijing for Article 120(3) for sending out a six-word joke in Chinese which can be translated as “follow me and believe in Islam, join the ISIS” to a WeChat group with over 300 people. He also used a photo of Bin Laden as his profile portrait. 

A portion of Han defendants were convicted of Article 120(6) “illegally possessing articles to promote terrorism or extremism” for keeping violent footage on their personal electronic or mobile devices, despite them not having shared anything with other people. None of the Han defendants convicted of this crime in Beijing received prison sentences exceeding one year.  

Targeting Han Dissidents

While most Han defendants in extremism cases are portrayed as thrill seekers who inadvertently violate the law, precedents also show that extremism easily becomes a catch-all offense to be used in politically motivated prosecutions targeting political and religious dissenters. In such cases, prison sentences can be excessive. For instance, Huang Yunmin (黄云敏) is serving his 10-year prison sentence for Article 120(6), one of the longest prison sentences given to a Han dissenter for an extremism crime. Huang was initially detained for provoking ethnic hatred in March 2017 for accompanying farmers and ex-soldiers to Beijing to petition during the “Two Sessions.” Additionally, prosecutors accused Huang of downloading a large number of anti-China footage from overseas websites and audiovisual materials related to the July 5 Urumqi riots. Huang is scheduled for release in 2027. 

(Clockwise top left) Journalist Zhang Baocheng; Huang Yunmin, known for helping petitioners; Zhao Waikei, Xuncheng Reformed Church leader. Image credits: Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch via RFA; Asia News; WeChat via ChinaAid 

Han who express sympathy with the Uyghur cause are at heightened risk of imprisonment for extremism crimes. Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) is serving his 42-month prison sentence in Beijing for Article 120(3) and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" until November 27, 2022. The extremism charge, which afforded him a prison sentence of eight months, stemmed from one video clip he circulated about “East Turkestan.” In November 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Zhang’s detention since 2019 was “arbitrary” and called on China to “release Mr. Zhang immediately,” noting that the prosecution’s main evidence against him related not to violence but to his tweets criticizing the re-education camps in Xinjiang holding Uyghurs. The Working Group’s ruling was made public by one of the plaintiffs on April 25, 2022. 

In a separate case, Hu Xincheng (胡新城) was arrested for Article 120(3) in Taiyuan, Shanxi, in January 2022 because of his journalistic work. Hu became a thorn in the side of local governments after he published hundreds of articles and reports about corruption. Additionally, Hu reportedly gave advice to petitioners on how to find redress for grievances within the petitioning system. 

Extremism is also used to target Christians unwilling to join the state sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Church. In July 2020, police in Taiyuan arrested Zhao Weikai (赵维凯) for Article 120(6). Zhao, a leader of the Xuncheng Reformed Church, repeatedly faces harassment by the authorities because of his insistence on educating his three children at home instead of sending them to a state school to receive atheist education. Zhao was formally arrested in the same month, being accused of possessing extremism materials. 

Part II will be published next week. Subscribe to Dui Hua publications here

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Underground, Not Extinct: South China Church

An open letter from the daughters of Pastor Gong Shengliang to then-President George W. Bush. The letter includes a picture of the Gong family (Gong Shengliang seated bottom left). Image credit: Boxun News 

The lack of recent information about South China Church has led to questions about its continued existence. Dui Hua’s research, including a criminal judgment issued in 2016 involving its members, suggests, however, that the group continues to operate even as its founder remains incarcerated. 

Founded in Hubei Province in 1991 as an offshoot of Full Scope Church, South China Church (华南教会) was designated as an “evil cult” by the Chinese government in 1995. At the time, the church was thought to have 50,000 followers across central China (some sources reported nearly 100,000 members). In 2001, the trial of 17 leaders of this Protestant house church sparked an international outcry. Church members submitted sworn statements to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention claiming that the church leaders had been tortured into confessing and making false statements prior to and during the trial. 

Among those sentenced was church founder Gong Shengliang (龚圣亮), who initially received a death sentence for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law,” aggravated assault, and rape. Responding to international pressure, the Hubei High People’s Court dropped the death sentence and ordered a retrial. Gong was granted a two-year reprieve from his death sentence in September 2002 after making a successful appeal. 

Reporting on Gong Shengliang’s two-year reprieve from the death penalty: (left) A reprinted Baltimore Sun article from 2002 on Gong; (right) a BBC article mentioning Gong’s case from November 9, 2004. Image credits: The Tech; BBC News 

Gong’s sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2006. Gong was granted a six-month sentence reduction in 2008. As he has been held behind bars for twenty years, updates about him and his church have been sparse. An exception came in December 2012, when his family members spoke to foreign press about Gong’s deteriorating health in prison. Gong was reportedly paralyzed by stroke. He was unable to speak or move the left side of his body and kept drooling from his mouth. However, prison officials have not conceded to his family’s request to release him on medical parole. 

Compared to Falun Gong and Almighty God, South China Church has not been a prime target of attacks by China’s anti-cult propaganda since its 17 church leaders were put on trial in the early 2000s. As recently as March 2020, a county government in Gansu mentioned South China Church only in passing alongside other seemingly inactive unorthodox Christian sects such as Anointed King, New Testament Church, Dami Mission, World Elijah Evangelical Mission, and Buddhist sect Yuandun Famen

Partly because of a lack of recent information about South China Church since Gong’s imprisonment, questions have arisen as to whether the group still exists. Some leaders left the church after 2002, while other members have continued to meet and have accepted the teachings of orthodox pastors. In the early 2010s,, a so-called non-governmental website claiming to reveal facts about Falun Gong, ran at least four reports covering South China Church. The interviewees were allegedly abused by South China Church members. The series appears to be a response to the brief foreign media exposure in 2012 resulting from Gong’s family members speaking out about his deteriorating health.

A screenshot of a search on showing reports on South China Church, including alleged abuses. Image credit: 

South China Church is a subject of research in at least two academic journals published after 2015. Their findings affirmed the church’s continuing operation. Huang Jianbo, anthropology professor at East China Normal University, wrote in Chinese Journal of Theology in 2015 that South China Church members continued to proselytize and that they administered the now-defunct website The journal was published by Institute of Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong. 

As recently as 2018, Beijing-based Christian Times (基督时报), which claimed to be independent of house churches or other religious organizations, also provided updates about South China Church. The in-depth article, authored by prolific Christian researcher Liu Yanyue, stated that Gong continued to decree that church members must read John Calvin’s seminal work of Institutes of the Christian Religion. The church might soon become marginalized, wrote Liu, but he also cited a church member he had interviewed as saying that many of its members are still longing for Gong’ release. 

(Left) The cover of a 1995 translation of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, said to be required reading for South China Church members; (right) the first page of the book’s first printing, from 1536. Image credits: The Book Depository; Public domain 

Dui Hua’s research into court websites also uncovered a judgment involving seven South China Church members who made an unsuccessful appeal in Jiangxi to overturn their conviction in December 2016. They were sentenced to 20-36 months in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” instead of Article 300. One of the defendants was previously sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence in October 2002 for aggravated assault, the same year when Gong’s death sentence was reduced to death with two-year reprieve. 

In May 2015, the defendants organized over 40 church members to travel from their home province Hubei to Gao’an City, Jiangxi, to protest the police’s handling of a traffic accident that had left one of their church members dead. The judgment stated that they chanted slogans, unfurled banners, placed wreathes, and held photos of the deceased while protesting and blocking traffic for four hours. Forty-one protesters were taken away at the scene. 

All the defendants have been released from prison at the time of writing. Two other court rulings Dui Hua uncovered indicated that Ding Zhicheng (丁志成) and Zhang Chengqin (张成勤) completed their sentences about four months early in January-February 2018 after being granted a sentence reduction. Ding and Zhang received the longest prison sentences, consisting of three years each, among the defendants in the case. Another recently uncovered official document from 2015 helped Dui Hua identify another defendant named Mei Yuqing (梅宇清) who received a two-year sentence while defendants Dong Hualing (董华玲), Dong Nengjun (董能军), and Wang Tiantian (万甜甜) both received sentences of one year and eight months in prison. 

Gong is believed to be the only South China Church leader still imprisoned. He has been a source of controversy due to questions concerning the orthodoxy of his teachings and his personal conduct. In 2007, reports by rights monitoring groups overseas found some evidence corroborating accusations against Gong, including that he molested female church members and that he encouraged the use of violence against the church’s perceived enemies. Yet, Dui Hua’s recent research on unorthodox religious groups and their treatment by the CCP suggests that the great majority of unorthodox religious prisoners are nonviolent.  

Like many other unorthodox religious groups suppressed by the Chinese government, South China Church has not been rendered extinct. Many of its activities appear to have been driven underground. With two more years to serve in prison, Gong is scheduled for release in April 2024. 


Thursday, March 31, 2022

Views of China Remain at Record Low, More See China’s Military as “Critical” Threat

A post on Gallup News’ Twitter account releasing their study on threats to the United States. Image credit: Gallup News Twitter account 

In Gallup’s latest annual World Affairs poll, conducted from February 1-17, the American public’s opinion of China remains at a historic low. The poll, conducted partly during the 2022 Winter Olympics, found that 79 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of China, with 41 percent answering “very unfavorable.” Only 20 percent of respondents have a “favorable” view of China. The numbers remain largely unchanged from the 2021 poll.  

China’s favorability rating is at its lowest since Gallup started to poll American attitudes towards the country in 1979. An on-going trade imbalance, the COVID-19 pandemic, and alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang likely all contributed to unfavorable opinions. In a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent viewed China’s human rights policies as a serious problem. 

The Gallup poll also found that Americans view China as a “critical” threat to US security. While more respondents identified terrorism (including cyber, international, and domestic) and the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea as critical threats, anxiety over China’s military power outranked the spread of infectious diseases and climate change in perceptions of being a critical threat. When given a list of possible threats to US interests, 67 percent said that China’s military power is a “critical” threat and 29 percent ranked it as “important;” only 4 percent characterized it as “unimportant.” The concern reached a historic high and even outstripped worries over military threat from Russia. The threat of China’s economic power is also considered “critical” by 57 percent of respondents and “important” by 34 percent. However, concern over China’s economic power fell from 63 percent in 2021.  

From Gallup’s February 1-17 survey, Americans’ favorability of China from 1979-2022. The poll was conducted from February 1-17 via telephone interviews with 1,008 adults and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. Image credit: Gallup [PDF, 873 KB] 

A similar poll by Pew Research conducted before the 2022 Beijing Olympics asked Americans if they see China as a partner, competitor, or enemy. The majority, 54 percent, saw China as a competitor; 35 percent answered as an enemy. Only 9 percent saw China as a partner. These opinions remained largely unchanged from 2021, when the views as competitor and enemy were 55 percent and 34 percent, respectively. 

The recently released polls were conducted in January and February, prior to the Russia invasion of Ukraine. China has since publicly supported Russia’s position while amplifying disinformation domestically. It is likely China’s favorability among Americans will suffer further as it embraces stronger anti-Western and anti-United States rhetoric. 

A different time: in 2017, Gallup polling found US attitudes to China to be at their highest point. Image credit: CGTN Twitter account 

The change in US leadership in 2021 did not bring a reset, or significant improvements, in the government’s official stance toward China as some had hoped it would. President Biden has made adjustments to policies inherited from the Trump administration while adopting a less incendiary tone. The Biden administration, however, has continued tough positions on trade negotiations and restrictions on key technologies while imposing more sanctions against human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.  

This latest polling will likely further the notion that the US-China relationship is at a crossroads, with the leadership of both struggling to differentiate where competition ends and hostility begins. Even at the lowest point of US-China confrontation during the Cold War, diplomacy, including efforts involving non-government interlocutors, was never completely dismissed. With publics in both the United States and China voicing more animosity for each other, politicians may soon be looking to change tact or adopt more policies to further decoupling. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China: A report by Dui Hua

(Clockwise from top left) Chinese government anti-cult propaganda; Tablighi Jamaat members with Hui Muslims at a mosque; practitioners of Yi Guan Dao; promotion for Milky Way Federation; a notice expanding the penalties under Article 300; the Jesus Family. Image credits: The Paper; Umal Al-Dawa Youtube Account; Jin De Fo Tang’s Facebook account; Sohu; Liaoning Pindao; Bridge Magazine  

Dui Hua’s new report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” [PDF, 1.4 MB] details and analyzes the Chinese government’s treatment of unorthodox religious groups, listing known banned groups and the actions taken against them. The report, compiled over several months in 2021, offers a view into a substantial and largely unrecognized aspect of the Chinese population. 

“The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” is based on legal documents, media reports, case studies, official publications, Chinese government responses to requests for information on persecuted prisoners, court statistics, and Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB).  It provides a comprehensive view of how non-state sanctioned religious practitioners come into conflict with the law, how officials at different levels of government criminalize unorthodox worship, and how past trends can inform future advocacy for those undergoing coercive measures for the non-violent expression of their beliefs.  

As early as 1951, regulations on punishing counterrevolutionaries targeted leaders of reactionary religious organizations. Currently, the Chinese government allows its citizens to take part in the five state-sanctioned patriotic associations of Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism, but many seeking spiritual salvation look beyond government-approved faiths and embrace unorthodox religious groups. 

Graph 1. Defendants and 1st-instance cases accepted and concluded for violating Article 300(1)
Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

Noting the extensive historical context informing the Chinese government’s approach to religious groups, especially those not sanctioned by the state, Dui Hua found that the 1997 revision to the criminal law placed “cult” trials into the purview of district courts, resulting in less transparency and attention for such cases. By 1999, trials of Article 300 cases—for those accused of organizing and using superstitious sects, secret societies, and religious organizations to undermine the law—soared, largely due to the ban on Falun Gong.  

The report includes an overview of 41 unorthodox religious groups; a summary of laws and regulations targeting unorthodox religious groups; analysis of court statistics from 1979-2016; discussion of deteriorating transparency in the disclosure of information on Article 300 cases; analysis of religious persecution using the PPDB; a summary of Dui Hua’s advocacy for such prisoners using prisoner lists and responses; and recommendations for future advocacy.  

Table 1. Breakdown of unorthodox religious practitioners in PPDB by affiliation
Source: PPDB

The objective of the report is to enable more effective interventions on behalf of practitioners of unorthodox religious groups who face coercive measures under Article 300 by providing insight and actionable information. Its main findings include the following:  

  • The number of adherents of orthodox religious groups makes up more than 10 percent of China’s population, perhaps as many as 15 percent. Unorthodox religious groups exist in all of China’s provinces and autonomous regions, and many have developed links to international groups. If the number of unorthodox religious adherents was incorporated into official figures, then the number of all religious practitioners in China would far exceed the current government figure of 200 million official practitioners (as of 2018).  
  • Adherents of unorthodox religious groups subjected to coercive measures for violating Article 300(1)—“organizing and using a cult to undermine implementation of the law”—and other charges make up 60 percent of all prisoners in the PPDB. Their numbers have swelled in recent years as sentence reductions and paroles have been restricted.  
  • The most common crime for which adherents of unorthodox religious groups are imprisoned is covered by Article 300(1) of China’s Criminal Law but other crimes are also used, including endangering state security and economic crimes like committing fraud (Article 266) and operating illegal businesses (Article 225).  
  • Falun Dafa (aka Falun Gong) and the Church of Almighty God have the largest number of adherents, but there are many other smaller groups. This report identified 41 unorthodox religious groups operating in China today or during the last two decades.  
  • From 1998-2016, women made up 41 percent of those sentenced to prison for violating Article 300, five times the percentage of all women prisoners in China.  

Graph 2. Gender Breakdown of prisoners and unorthodox religious prisoners in PPDB
Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

  • Adherents of unorthodox religions are typically non-violent. Instances of violence are rare; when they occur, the Chinese government features them in “anti-cult” propaganda. Adherents have been convicted of rape and murder. Those so convicted are often executed.  
  • The persecution of unorthodox religious groups has existed since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; adherents were classified as counterrevolutionaries prior to 1997. They have been viewed as threats to the government’s hold on power.  
  • Persecution of unorthodox religious practitioners rose sharply following the banning of Falun Gong in 1999. In recent years, practitioners have seen sentences increase and clemency restricted. Persecution shows no sign of abating. In 2018, there were 3,550 people tried for violating Article 300(1), one of the highest numbers of individuals tried for this charge in recent years.   
  • Adherents of unorthodox religions rarely make their way onto prisoner lists submitted to the Chinese government in bilateral and multilateral human rights dialogues. Their numbers dwarf those subject to coercive measures for exercising their political beliefs.  
Dui Hua encourages governments to raise the issue of this persecution in formal and informal discussions on human rights with the Chinese government and to include the names of imprisoned practitioners of unorthodox religions to the lists compiled for use in human rights dialogues with China. When, and to the extent possible, governments and NGOs should support appeals of unorthodox religion practitioners to Special Procedures of the United Nations. More so, governments and NGOs should incorporate concerns about the persecution of unorthodox religious groups into submissions to China’s Universal Periodic Review, tentatively scheduled for October 2023. 

Finally, governments should use this report when considering applications of political asylum by practitioners of unorthodox religions. Some governments, particularly in Europe, have become more open to accepting asylum requests for Church of Almighty God members. Dui Hua encourages courts to recognize the persecution of unorthodox religious group members as grounds for asylum and to recognize precedents for such asylum requests.    

Thursday, March 10, 2022

People's Parties & "Picking Quarrels," Part II: From ESS to Pocket Crime

Weihui Peoples Court. Image credit: Weihui People’s Court Official WeChat account

The 2021 prosecution of a young man surnamed Li for forming a “People’s Party,” disseminating writings prosecutors deemed “slanderous,” and seeking to recruit members points to an increasingly prevalent tactic of criminalization – a shift from charging political dissidents with endangering state security (ESS) crimes to instead charging them with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Over a decade ago, the same acts of disseminating “reactionary,” “subversive,” or “slanderous” articles in the name of a political party would have been more likely punished as ESS crimes.  

In Part I, Dui Hua detailed Li’s case and the court's rationale for charging him with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This entry looks at similar cases and shifts in sentencing, considering reasons for the enhanced usage of  “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

People's Parties

Li’s People’s Party was not the first political party of its kind. Dissident intellectuals, farmers, workers, and Communist idealists have recruited like-minded individuals and organized underground groups over the past two decades. They often choose names like “People’s Party,” mindang or renmindang, as a way of invoking public support or positioning themselves as representatives of the Chinese people. These “People’s Parties” do not appear to be connected to each other; rather their appeal is to specific social groups. While some aspire to Western-style democracy and call for a multiparty political system, others believe that a return to pre-reform era socialism is a panacea for social injustices and government corruption.  

Dui Hua previously reported that around 2008, Dong Zhanyi (董占义) founded a different People’s Party, which was later renamed to “New Era Communist Party of China.” Dong was convicted of subversion and contract fraud in October 2011 and was sentenced to life in prison. Another party founder Chen Guohua (陈国华) was given a 14-year prison sentence for subversion. This party, once active in Beijing, Henan, Shandong, and Jiangxi, aimed to fight corruption and allegedly recruited aggrieved workers and petitioners to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. 

Another opposition group, which also existed online like Li’s party, was called the People’s Party. In November 2009, news media sources reported that a Henan netizen surnamed Yan stood trial in Wuhan for inciting subversion after proclaiming himself to be chairman of the “Chinese People’s Party” (中国人民党). Yan’s political orientation is ambiguous. Dui Hua learned that his full name is Yan Bianfang (阎边防). Yan reportedly wrote two “subversive” articles and read them aloud in a video he posted on a US website. The links to his articles and video were circulated domestically on Chinese websites. Yan was sentenced to one year in prison and completed his prison sentence in April 2010. Yan was charged with inciting subversion, a crime of endangering state security; Li’s crime and sentencing were similar to Yan’s, but in an apparent shift in practice, Yan was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” 

The reason behind this shift is unclear, but it might be a way to obscure cases of a political nature that would otherwise attract scrutiny by treating them as pocket crimes, like “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Crimes of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” are tried in district courts while ESS crimes are tried in intermediate courts. District court trials tend to be quicker and attract less attention than those at the intermediate level. Judges are typically less experienced, and corruption is more prevalent. The comparative lack of attention means that judgments are less contentious, with the rationale behind them drawing less scrutiny. 

Another possible explanation for the shift might be that the procuratorate or the court thinks it is easier to determine that a post or act caused “social harm” or “disturbed the social order” than it is to show the “subversion of state power.” The threshold for justifying pocket crimes is lower than that for ESS charges. This catch-all crime now carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, up from the previous cap of five years, following the eighth amendment to the Criminal Law in 2011. 

Excerpts from the joint notice broadening the application of the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble to include Covid-related actions. Image credit: Ministry of Public Security of China

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” has been used along with an array of other criminal offenses to curb so-called “pandemic-related crimes.” On February 10, 2020, two months into the pandemic, a notice jointly issued by the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice broadened the crime’s application to punish those who cause chaos by using “violence or other means” to insult or intimidate medical personnel, as well as those who spread “false news” or “rumors” about the pandemic.  

By February 25, 2020, about a month after Wuhan was first placed on lockdown, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate reported handling 301 pandemic-related picking quarrels cases nationwide involving 375 people. In addition to citizen journalists, street protesters, and rights lawyers, Li’s case indicated that dissident party organizers were also among those at risk of arrest for this pocket crime. 

The vague definition of Article 293 has long attracted criticism from China’s legal scholars and experts. Prominent lawyer Zhu Zhengfu recently suggested in an interview with China News Weekly that the government “abolish the crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles at a right time.” Zhu, a representative of the Consultative Conference and a member of the All China Lawyers Association’s supervisory board, pointed out that “clarity is the essential requirement of the Nulla poena sine lege; however, the wording in the Article 293 is excessively vague, such as ‘at will,’ ‘willfully,’ ‘serious circumstances,’ or ‘causing serious disturbances to public order.’ Yet those described [activities] are the key elements of the crime.”  

News coverage featuring excerpts of Zhu’s statements on Article 293. Image credit: China News Weekly via Weibo 

Zhu, whose comments came during preparation for the “Two Meetings” which began March 4, added that the definition’s ambiguity enables authorities to selectively enforce the law and harmed citizens’ rights. Zhu’s suggestion has since been echoed by others. Xiao Shenfang, a member of the NPC and vice chairperson of the All China Lawyers Association, also plans to submit a similar proposal at the “Two Meetings.” Xiao also warned of the law’s over-criminalization of social issues.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

People’s Parties & “Picking Quarrels,” Part I: Mysterious Party Founder Charged amid Pandemic

On January 4, 2022, a police officer from the Dongcheng Branch of the Xuchang Public Security Bureau managing the taxi rank in front of Xuchang East Station following the closure of the city. Image credit: Xuchang government 

Dissent has fast become a victim of the coronavirus as China tightens controls on acceptable forms of speech during the pandemic. Citizen journalists who give first-hand accounts that contradict the official version of events are at risk of arrest for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” with a notable example being Zhang Zhan (张展).  

The crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” also targets those who take to the streets during lockdowns. China’s persistence with the zero-COVID policy, often imposing total lockdowns alongside mandatory testing programs in major cities or across entire neighborhoods, has sparked protests over overpriced groceries and poor-quality food supplies. As recently as January 2022, mass incidents broke out in Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Xi’an.  

This entry in the Human Rights Journal, the first of two installments, looks at the application of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” through the case of a one prisoner whose political engagement was born out of frustration with pandemic restrictions. Part II looks at how this and similar cases reflect shifts in the use of different crimes to stifle dissent.

Images from Radio Free Asia’s reporting on mass protests in Tianjin, Shenzhen, and Xian against COVID-19 restrictions. Image credit: Radio Free Asia 

Unbeknownst to many people is that China’s heavy-handed approach to handling COVID-19 led a dissenter to form an opposition party to challenge the Chinese Communist Party. Dui Hua’s research found that a young man surnamed Li founded the “People’s Party” (人民党) in Weihui City, Henan, in March 2020, two months after the initial outbreak occurred in neighboring Hubei province.  

A document filed to the Weihui City People’s Court stated that Li became “anti-social” and resented the current political system after his sources of income were cut off as a result of pandemic containment measures. Following in the footsteps of Wuhan, the site of the first lockdown, cities and counties across Henan were soon placed under strict lockdowns with measures such as banning non-essential travel between villages and communities. Li allegedly recruited leftist supporters to join his People’s Party with a goal to save the world.  

Li’s People’s Party might have existed only in name and only in the virtual space. Li used the internet to comment on current issues, disseminate his political views, and seek members. Li founded Oriental Voice, an online journal he irregularly posted in his QQ chatgroups. In Oriental Voice, Li published his party constitution and discussed historical nihilism (i.e. the questioning of the Chinese Communist Party’s official version of Chinese history). Additionally, he collected articles on how to “drink tea,” a euphemism for being summoned or interrogated by public and state security police. His articles, published over a total of 36 issues, garnered over 150,000 views.  

Prosecutors alleged that the articles contained slanderous remarks about the socialist system and senior leaders. His personal QQ document folders also contained content described as “reactionary articles” with titles such as “Discussing Our Future during the Trough of the Communist Movement,” “A Letter to All Chinese Socialist Leftist Comrades,” “The Constitution of the People’s Party,” and “The Confidentiality Code of the People’s Party.” 

According to the document, Li was suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and the Weihui City Public Security Bureau decided to carry out criminal detention on March 21, 2021 after he was apprehended in a staff dormitory in Guangzhou a day earlier. The Weihui City Procuratorate approved his arrest on April 2. Li was charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” On June 2, Li was formally indicted for this crime, which has been increasingly used against peaceful protests and those who express dissent.  

The procuratorate claimed that Li had “promoted and disseminated reactionary speech in online public space and seriously disturbed social order” in violation of Article 293 of the Criminal Law. The prosecutor recommended that the court give Li a short prison sentence of 12 to 18 months in part because he was a first-time offender, admitted his guilt, and “showed repentance.” 

It is notable that Li’s crime was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” In the past, similar behavior—starting a political party in opposition to the CCP, publishing materials political in nature, and seeking to recruit others—would be more likely to face charges of endangering state security, mainly subversion or inciting subversion.  

Read Part II here.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Decoding State Security Trials, Part II: “Other” Trials & Other Provinces

Haikou Intermediate People's Court in Haikou, Hainan Province, People's Republic of China. Image credit: Anna Frodesiak / CCO

In China, trials for crimes of endangering state security (ESS) are capable of generating intense, international media scrutiny while also being woefully opaque. In the face of severe degradations in judicial transparency, increasingly scant data—the latest from 2020—suggests that ESS trials have surged in recent years.

In Part I, Dui Hua looked at available statistics for ESS trials, focusing on Tibet—where ESS cases rose sharply in 2020—and Xinjiang, which accounted for the largest percentage of ESS trials of any Chinese region through the mid-2010s. This entry considers the rates of additional trials categorized as “other” in China Statistical Yearbooks (中国统计年鉴): dereliction of military duty, criminal offenses prior to 1997, and ESS trials in Han-majority provinces and Guangdong.

“Other” Trials: ESS, Dereliction of Military Duty, and Cases Before 1997

Table 1. Number of cases and people arrested and indicted for dereliction of military duty, 2012-2018
Source: China Statistical Yearbooks

Dereliction of military duty typically makes up a negligible number of “other” trials. From 2012-2016, Chinese courts concluded 48 trials of dereliction of military duty, just one percent of “other” trials. China Statistical Yearbooks revealed that only two people were arrested for the crime in 2016, and no single arrest was made from 2017-2020. Additionally, no one was indicted in the three years since 2016. Assuming the same trend of arrest and indictment continues, it is to be expected that only a handful of dereliction of military duty cases had proceeded to trials in the four years since 2017.

“Other” trials also include the little-known category of pre-1997 criminal cases, which concern crimes committed before the revised Criminal Law took effect on October 1, 1997. The Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 indicated that nearly 60 percent of “other” trials concerned pre-1997 criminal cases from 2012-2016. In 2012 alone, fifteen years after the 1997 Criminal Law came into force, as many as 995 trials were concluded, accounting for 72 percent of “other” trials in that year. While there is insufficient information to estimate the number of pre-1997 criminal cases in recent years, the number showed signs of abating. In 2016, only 88 trials were concluded, down from 651 and 191 trials in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

Table 2. Number of "other" trials and trials of ESS, dereliction of military duty trials, and pre-1997 criminal cases
*(a) = (b) + (c) + (d); Sources: China Statistical Yearbooks & Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 

Among the pre-1997 criminal cases to have been concluded after 1997 are the now-defunct crimes of counterrevolution, with a notable example being Chen Yulin (陈瑜琳). The former employee of Xinhua News Agency was accused of handing over materials, including the Xinhua telephone directory and organization chart, to a British agent embedded in the Hong Kong police force during his tenure in the early 1990s. In 2004, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Guangzhou. He was convicted not of ESS, but of the counterrevolution crime of espionage in accordance with the 1979 Criminal Law. Chen completed his sentence in August 2020 following multiple sentence reductions granted to him since 2007.

Hooliganism, another crime which no longer exists in the 1997 Criminal Law, was among the cases which could be found under the category of pre-1997 criminal cases before the mass purge of China Judgements Online in June 2021. China’s Criminal Law imposes no limit on the period of prosecution for cases where the suspect has escaped after a pre-1997 criminal case has been filed by police or the procuratorate, or heard by the courts. Some hooliganism cases concern prisoners who were released on probation but re-sentenced after 1997 for violating parole rules. Courts can also hear a new case and extend sentences for hooliganism prisoners for violating prison regulations. A few prisoners were sentenced to new offenses that were missing in the original hooliganism trials, and thus received sentence extensions.

Han-Majority Provinces & Guangdong

Outside of Tibetan regions and Xinjiang, Dui Hua’s research into provincial statistical yearbooks found that few ESS trials have been concluded in Han-majority provinces. In Chongqing, no ESS trials were held from 2018-2020. Hainan accepted and concluded two ESS trials in 2020, whereas Guizhou only held one ESS trial every year from 2014-2019. 

More ESS trials took place in Guangdong, but the figures are far out of proportion given the province’s large population. From 2013-2019, courts in Guangdong concluded 54 ESS trials. Although the numbers in 2020-2021 are not yet available, it is likely that some of the latest ESS trials were closely related to Hong Kong. 

In 2018 and 2019, Guangdong authorities arrested a total of 17 people on suspicion of ESS and indicted a total of 30 people on ESS charges. Some of the ESS arrests in Guangdong over the past three years involved Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests. In April 2021, state-run news media publicized four ESS cases in Guangdong, two of which were Hong Kong-related. In June 2020, a university student from Hong Kong surnamed Yeung was accused of subversion while studying in the mainland. Yeung not only retweeted in support of Hong Kong’s “black-clad mobs,” but also smeared the police force with a stated goal to bring Hong Kong’s model of political resistance to China. 

In the second case, a mainland student studying at the University of Hong Kong posted information on social media to support Hong Kong protesters and attack the central government. His messages also included “liberate Hong Kong,” a banned slogan also deemed capable of inciting secession in the former British colony. Detained in June 2020 upon his return to the mainland, the student reportedly wrote a 100,000-word repentance statement in which he vowed not to take part in activity that endangers state security.

More Hong Kong-related ESS arrests were made in Guangdong. In September 2021, news media sources reported that independent journalist Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴) was placed under residential surveillance at a designated location in Shenzhen. She was formally arrested for inciting subversion the following month. Prior to her arrest, Huang was briefly detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in 2019 after taking part in and publishing writings about the Hong Kong protests. Arrested with Huang in October was her friend Wang Jianbin (王建兵), an education and labor advocate. Wang too was arrested for inciting subversion.

ESS trials have long been criticized for being opaque. A number of these trials were held behind closed doors with citizens, journalists and foreign diplomats shut out, as in the cases of the Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and Australian citizen Yang Hengjun (杨恒君, aka Yang Jun). The identities, acts, and fates of many more people tried, convicted, and sentenced in ESS cases are not known. 

Media attention for recent ESS cases on Twitter (left to right): Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of Huang Xueqin; PEN America calls for the release of Yang Hengjun; Canada’s Prime Minister hails the release of Michaels Kovrig and Spavor. Image credits: RSF in English Twitter account; PEN America Twitter account;  Justin Trudeau Twitter account 

In 2021, transparency of ESS cases dipped to a record low. Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has information on 68 individuals who were sentenced in ESS trials of first instance in 2020. With the mass purge of court judgments online, the Chinese government has undone some of its progress in judicial transparency and, in doing so, possibly harmed its own rule of law.