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