Thursday, January 27, 2022

Americans Lose Confidence in Biden’s Ability to Deal with China

President Biden delivers remarks at the House Democratic Caucus on the Build Back Better agenda and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, October 28, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Image credit: Adam Schultz / Official White House Photo 

Two polls of Americans taken in mid-January 2022 reveal a sharp drop in confidence among registered voters in President Joe Biden’s ability to handle China.  

A CBS News poll of 2,094 adults conducted January 12-14, 2022 found that 59 percent disapprove of Mr. Biden’s handling of China issues while 41 percent approve, closely tracking with the president’s overall approval rating. From July 14 to July 17, 2021, the same poll showed that 52 percent of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of China issues while 48 percent approved. 

A larger poll of 5,128 American adults conducted by Pew January 10-17, 2022. found that 39 percent were confident in the president’s ability to deal effectively with China while 61 percent were not confident in his ability to handle relations with a country widely viewed as an adversary of the United States. One year ago, in early February 2021, 53 percent of adults surveyed by Pew were confident of the new president’s ability to deal effectively with China while 46 percent were not confident. 

There are several reasons that might explain this lack of confidence. President Biden’s overall rating for foreign policy is underwater by double digits. There is a steady drum beat of negative stories about China in American media, with no decisive action or policies on the part of the Biden administration to counter the alleged malign activities. Finally, President Biden’s November virtual summit with Chinese President Xi yielded few results. 

The day after the summit, President Biden was interviewed on the tarmac of the Pittsburgh airport. He claimed that he and Xi had agreed to set up four working groups covering a wide range of issues. To date, information about what those four working groups are, including what they are working on, has not been disclosed.  

Low approval of President Biden’s handling of China limits his ability to take steps that might improve US-China relations, a prime example being the lifting of tariffs imposed by former president Trump. Treasury Secretary Yellen has commented that reducing tariffs can help in the fight against inflation, and more than 100 lawmakers have written a letter to the president urging the granting of more tariff exemptions on Chinese goods, a move strongly supported by the business community. President Biden was asked about lifting the tariffs during his January press conference. His response: “We’re not there yet.” 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Decoding State Security Trials, Part I: ESS Cases in Tibet Rose Sharply in 2020

Chinese guard in Potala Square on May 20, 2014. Image credit: Andrew and Annemarie / CC BY-SA 2.0 

Crimes of endangering state security in China achieved international attention in 2021 with high-profile cases related to hostage diplomacy, even as available information about individual trials decreased. Such crimes include subversion, splittism, incitement to subversion/splittism, espionage, and state secrets violations. They carry a mandatory supplemental sentence of deprivation of political rights, precluding individuals from writing articles, giving interviews, voting, standing for office, and working in a state-owned company. 

From 2017-2020, Chinese courts concluded 1,330 trials of endangering state security (ESS), dereliction of military duty, and pre-1997 offenses, according to Dui Hua’s analysis of data published annually in China Statistical Yearbooks (中国统计年鉴) by the National Bureau of Statistics. The yearbooks, accessible on the National Bureau of Statistics website, provide information on the number of first-instance criminal trials accepted and concluded by people’s courts nationwide.  

ESS, dereliction of military duty, and criminal offenses prior to October 1, 1997 are typically included in the category of “other” trials. In 2020, the latest year for which information is available, trials of ESS by Chinese courts appear to have surged. They accepted 417 “other” trials, up from 257 and 317 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The courts also concluded 382 “other” trials in 2020, an increase from 218 and 283 over the previous two years.  

This post, the first of two, looks at the number of ESS trials in Tibetan areas as well as in Xinjiang. Part II details case numbers for “other” trials such as dereliction of military duty as well as ESS trials in Han-majority provinces and Guangdong. 

Table 1. 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 

A fair portion of “other” trials are made up of ESS. Statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court in the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 confirmed that a total of 1,602 ESS trials were concluded from 2012-2016, making up 40 percent of “other” trials. In 2016, as many as two-thirds of the 285 “other” trials concluded were ESS. 

Tibet

Tibet covers one-eighth of China’s territory and has a relatively small population of 3.6 million people, but a disproportionately large number of China’s ESS trials are concluded in the region. With a level of transparency not seen in other provinces, the high court of the Tibet Autonomous Region has annually disclosed the number of ESS trials in the region for the years 2018-2020. In 2018, 25 people were tried for inciting splittism and providing funds to entities/individuals to endanger state security. The following year, 37 people were tried in 24 ESS cases involving the same offenses. The latest available 2021 work report stated that the number of ESS cases in 2020 increased to 65 involving 74 defendants.  

Official figures disclosed in Ganzi Prefecture also hint at the extent of crackdown in the Tibetan autonomous region in western Sichuan. Although trial numbers are not available, the prefecture’s procuratorate approved the arrest of nine individuals in seven ESS cases in 2020, according to its 2021 annual work report. That same year, 15 people were indicted in 12 ESS cases. While figures are available for Tibet and Ganzi, it is not known how many people were arrested, indicted, or tried in other Tibetan regions in Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, and Yunnan. 

Tibetans stand accused of ESS for sharing news and opinions on social media and for contacting relatives living in exile, sometimes with news of anti-government protests. Chinese authorities maintain tight control over information flows across the Tibetan regions. Dui Hua’s research into court judgments found the names of nine Tibetans who were tried for inciting splittism in Ganzi between June and August 2020. From September to December of the same year, six more Tibetans were tried in Ganzi, and seven Tibetans were tried for the same crime in its neighboring Aba Prefecture. These judgments provided no information beyond their names, the charges against them, and the dates of the judgment.

Xinjiang

Dui Hua’s analysis of data published in the annual work reports of the Xinjiang High People’s Court through the mid-2010s found that the autonomous region accounted for the largest percentage of ESS trials of any Chinese region. About 300 ESS trials were held in Xinjiang each year in 2013 and 2014, accounting for three quarters of China’s total ESS trials. The number decreased in 2015, but Xinjiang continued to account for almost half of the 214 ESS trials nationwide. The lack of publicly available data in recent years makes it impossible to ascertain whether the majority of ESS cases continued to be concluded in the region. The use of the vast network of re-education camps beginning in 2017 might have an impact on the number of ESS trials. Authorities in Xinjiang can easily stifle dissent under the pretext of vocational training without invoking ESS crimes. 

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. 


Part II, to be published next month, will explore ESS trials in Han-majority provinces and Guangdong as well as trials for additional crimes categorized as “other.” 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Shincheonji Church in China Before & Through the Pandemic

On September 16, 2012, Shincheonji Church hosted the 6th Shincheonji National Olympiad in Olympic Stadium in Seoul. Image credit: Junganghansik / CC BY-SA 3.0 

The Chinese government has long been vigilant of burgeoning Christian groups from South Korea. Of the 12 Christian groups identified as cult organizations in a circular issued by the Ministry of Public Security in 2000, three are from South Korea: The Unification Church, World Elijah Evangelical Mission, and Dami Mission. However, many more South Korean Christian groups have been targeted in religious crackdowns across China. Following its exploration of the case of Cho Young-joo and his Good News Mission, Dui Hua has found ample evidence of a clampdown on the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (新天地教会) by the Chinese government.  

Literally translated as New Heaven and New Earth Church, Shincheonji was singled out for fierce criticism in South Korea in early 2020 while the country was battling its COVID-19 outbreak. The controversy began with a Shincheonji congregant nicknamed Patient 31 who attended several church events in Daegu despite having COVID-19 symptoms. In March 2020, the city became the largest epicenter of the pandemic outside China, with a cluster of infections reportedly linked to this secretive Protestant group. Sincheonji’s founder Lee Man-hee was charged with and acquitted of obstructing efforts to stamp out the pandemic by deliberately withholding information about its membership from health authorities trying to conduct contact tracing. However, Lee was convicted of embezzling billions of Korean won and received a suspended prison sentence. 

Before the pandemic made Shincheonji a target of public scorn, Dui Hua’s research into government records found that China had long perceived the group to be a “cult organization” and source of religious infiltration and heresy. While some Shincheonji activity was identified in China as early as 1993, Chinese government sources say that “religious infiltration” in an organized manner in northeast provinces and eastern coastal regions began around 2010. A state-run media article in 2018 wrote that, “Under the banner of Christianity and being a public welfare organization,” Shincheonji deifies its founder Lee Man-hee and fabricates heresy about the “immortal body.” The article went on to say that by illegally collecting personal information,  Shincheonji  “steals state secrets, amasses vast fortunes, and endangers society.”  

A parked car with signs protesting Shincheonji Church in March 2020. Image credit: MatthieuRicard / CC0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Dui Hua’s research into local government yearbooks found about two dozen instances of religious clampdowns targeting Shincheonji in Beijing, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Fuzhou, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Henan, Hubei, Hebei, and Shanxi before the pandemic. In 2018, local governments across China began banning Shincheonji in their anti-cult campaigns. The largest raid occurred in November 2018 in Dalian, Liaoning, where the church had grown to 2,000 members. Dozens of core members were admonished after police confiscated all their religious items. In the same year, police in Zhangwan District, Hubei, found that Shincheonji had been actively preaching among students during the summer holiday, and authorities detained 40 people in 11 cult cases involving Shincheonji as well as Falun Gong and Almighty God. 

Shincheonji members in South Korea and China were in frequent communication with each other. On February 29, 2020, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice said that a total of 3,600 Shincheonji followers entered South Korea from China between July 2019 and February 27, 2020. Of them, 42 members had entered the country from Wuhan during this period. 

In February 2020, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that Shincheonji had a membership of 20,000 people across China. There were about 200 members in Wuhan when rumors surfaced in late 2019 about an unknown virus in the Chinese city which would become the epicenter of the epidemic. Members continued to hold meetings until December 2019 but stopped after they realized that their congregants had been infected with COVID-19. After December 2019, Shinchoenji moved online, continuing to share sermons and teachings virtually. Most members had returned home at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday in late January 2020. 

The same SCMP report also quoted a former Shincheonji missionary in Shanghai as saying that the church used to hold meetings every Wednesday and Sunday, attracting 300-400 people at a time. Despite multiple raids by police, church members continued to meet in smaller groups of eight to 10 people. The church’s secretive nature made it hard for the authorities to eradicate its activities, said the missionary. 

The first known criminal case involving six members of Shincheonji in Dalian, Liaoning. Image credit: www.12309.gov.cn

Dui Hua’s research found the two criminal cases involving Shincheongji in China from the procuratorate website. In both cases, the suspects were accused of fraud. A notice posted on November 11, 2020 indicated that six Shincheonji members were detained for “organizing and using a Korean religion to promote feudal superstition” in Dalian, Liaoning, by falsely saying “that Shincheonji and its founder Lee Man-hee can manipulate one’s life and death.” The case was transferred to Dalian High-Tech Industrial Zone Procuratorate for review, but no further information is publicly available.  

A female Shincheonji member in Guiyang, Guizhou, was indicted for fraud on February 3, 2021. Image credit: www.12309.gov.cn 

The second case involves one female criminal suspect surnamed Chu, who was detained in Guiyang, Guizhou, on September 27, 2020 and arrested 37 days later on November 3. According to the indictment issued on February 3, 2021, Chu was appointed by Shincheonji’s Chinese headquarters in Changchun to proselytize in Guiyang, but her status as a cleric had not been recognized by China’s religious bureau. Chu was accused of receiving 11,205-yuan in donations from church members in the two months since April 2020. The prosecutor recommended that the court give Chu a lenient prison sentence of six months because Chu admitted her guilt. 

China is not alone in discrediting minority religious groups like Shincheonji. Mainstream Protestant denominations in South Korea call it a “cult” because of its secretive nature and unconventional beliefs. Lee Man-hee claimed that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ uniquely capable of deciphering the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Despite having been acquitted over the COVID case surge in South Korea, Shincheonji continues to come under fire for spreading the coronavirus. Chinese news media sources have reinforced the notion that Shincheonji is a virus spreader and a fraudulent cult, just as some in South Korea and further abroad continue to regard the group with fear, resentment, and confusion.