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 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.


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. 

Read Part II.