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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