Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Punishing Namāz Prayer in Prison, Part II: “Illegal Religious Activity”

A photo of the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, in Kashgar, Xinjiang, taken in 2017. The photographer noted that worshippers had their ID cards recorded. Image credit: David Stanley / CC By 2.0 

Part I of this article discussed existing laws and regulations limiting religious expression in China, and it explored the case of Ismayil Sidiq, a Uyghur farmer serving a 10-year prison sentence for “promoting extremism” whose sentence was doubled after he “used a disguised and simplified method to perform namāz in the prison dormitory.” Namāz, commonly known as salah, refers to the pillar of the Islamic faith that obliges believers to pray five times a day. 

Dui Hua’s research into court judgments, however, found a similar case where a Uyghur prisoner was sentenced in December 2019 to 18 months for Article 315 for conducting “illegal religious activity” on four occasions in Xinjiang’s Shihezi Prison. Prior to this, the Uyghur prisoner was serving his 20 years prison sentence for terrorism and promoting extremism. Despite being accused of conducting “illegal religious activity” on one more occasion, he was given an 18-month prison sentence for Article 315—half the length of Ismayil’s sentence. The judgment did not state whether namāz was involved. 

Ismayil’s case is by no means an isolated incident, although what happened to him might have portended the worst possible outcome for performing namāz in prison. Dui Hua found cases where other Uyghur prisoners, while already serving lengthy prison sentences, were criminally prosecuted for Article 315 because of namāz. In the first case, a Uyghur serving his 10-year sentence for participating in a terrorist organization in Xinjiang’s Bayingolin Prison was found to have performed namāz on four occasions during the week of March 14, 2017. On each occasion, he awoke other cellmates, including those serving their sentences for endangering state security, to join his morning prayer. On May 21, he was put under 15 days of solitary confinement, during which he insisted on performing namāz five times a day and called on other cellmates to join his prayer. 

A picture of Bayingolin Prison. Image credit: Shahit.biz 

It would be a mistake to assume that prosecution against namāz only targets Uyghurs convicted of endangering state security, terrorism, or religious extremism offenses. In the second case, a Uyghur serving his seven-year sentence for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” a public order offense, in Korla Prison was indicted for Article 315 on June 13, 2017. The indictment stated that he refused to repent and that he insisted on performing namāz every day. Originally due for release on July 17, 2021, this Uyghur prisoner is likely to remain incarcerated until at least 2024. 

In these two cases, the trial outcome is unclear. However, given what happened to Ismayil, they are highly likely to have been convicted and sentenced to additional prison terms under Article 315. 

Besides Uyghurs, Muslim prisoners from other ethnic minority groups outside of Xinjiang also receive punishment for performing namāz. However, Dui Hua found that none of them were sentenced or criminally prosecuted like the abovementioned Uyghurs. These cases involved one Hui and two ethnic Dongxiang Muslims who were convicted of theft or drug-related crimes in Linxia, Gansu. The Hui and Dongxiang Muslims were only given warnings by prison authorities in July 2018. The duo allegedly showed remorse by stopping their prayers completely after they were warned. 

Nevertheless, not all prisoners are as obedient. Ma Mene (马么呢), an ethnic Dongxiang Muslim, displayed a “bad attitude” and confronted prison guards after he was found praying in prison. Ma was placed under yanguan jixun (严管集训) for 15 days, a form of strict control for collective discipline training. During this period, he was unable to accrue clemency points to obtain early release. 

A Muslim prisoner in the United States prays on his rug inside his cell at prison. Image credit: Andy Aitchison, PrisonImage / Creative Commons 

China is not alone in denying Muslims their right to pray or worship meaningfully in prison. From reading the Quran to growing beards and restricting daily group prayers, Muslim prisoners in other countries have their religious rights deprived to varying degrees. In the United States, Muslims are overrepresented in state prisons, making up 9 percent of the prison population despite being 1 percent of the general population according to a 2019 report by Muslim Advocates. The report found that prisons in multiple states fail to accommodate Muslim dietary requirements, force male prisoners to shave their beards, and restrict group prayer.  

As recently as April 2022, Muslim prisoners in the United States faced obstacles in accessing halal food, adequate dietary accommodations during Ramadan, and religious materials such as prayer mats and Qurans even as equivalent requirements are met for other faiths. Some progress has been made after civil society organizations filed lawsuits challenging religious restrictions in prison. For instance, federal prisons in the United States changed the national guideline in 2019 to accommodate Muslim congregational prayer services, which was previously restricted to three people, unless there is a security concern.  

The use of “security concerns” to justify restrictions on religious expressions is an oft-used tool of governments. China, too, often cites security concerns to justify its religious crackdowns in- and outside of its carceral system. In a country which adheres so closely to the notion of “stability above all else,” it is unlikely that religious restrictions on namāz in prison will abate. Similarly, the right to free assembly through group prayer, a practice valued by Muslims and only recently permissible in US prisons, is likely to continue amongst China’s repression of religious expression and assembly. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Punishing Namāz Prayer in Prison, Part I: “Sabotaging Prison Supervision”

A clock hanging in a Turkish mosque showing Muslim prayer times. Image credit: LooiNL 

Muslims around the world are obliged to perform five daily prayers at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night. The ritual, commonly known as salah, is often called namazi (CN: 乃玛孜) in China, a Persian transliteration of namāz. Within China’s carceral system, all forms of religious worship, including namāz, are forbidden. Prisoners who covertly perform namāz are at risk of receiving harsh punishment, with the most serious penalty being a sentence extension. 

This risk is well demonstrated in the case of Ismayil Sidiq. In May 2021, the BBC reported that the now-57-year-old Uyghur farmer was serving a 10-year prison sentence for “promoting extremism” in Kuitun Prison in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps when he had his sentence doubled after he “used a disguised and simplified method to perform namāz in the prison dormitory.” On May 29, 2018, the Kuitun Reclamation Area People’s Court convicted him of “sabotaging prison supervision” and “provoking ethnic hatred,” and handed down an additional prison term of 13 years. Ismayil has 16 more years to serve before completing his sentence on May 28, 2038. He will be 74 years old. 

The four-page judgment gave a detailed account of what happened in Kuitun Prison. First searchable on China Judgements Online, the judgment is among the tens of thousands of sensitive cases taken offline in mid-2021. The judgment has since been archived and translated into English by the Xinjiang Victims Database

A translation of the judgment against Ismayil. Image credit: Xinjiang Victims Database Twitter account 

According to the judgment, Ismayil performed namāz on three occasions in the prison dormitory in early 2018. The first two took place on January 25 and February 17 after he realized that the time displayed on the television was the time for his final daily namāz. On March 3, on the pretext of needing to urinate, he secretly performed wudu, the washing ritual that Muslims perform before praying. After being discovered and stopped by his Uyghur cellmates, he became outraged and shouted at them asking, “Are you Uyghurs? Do Uyghurs enjoy reporting other Uyghurs like this?” 

The court found clear and sufficient evidence of Ismayil sabotaging prison supervision because he “repeatedly engaged in covert religious activities in prison.” This crime alone afforded him a prison sentence of three years - the maximum penalty stipulated in Article 315 of the Criminal Law. Furthermore, he was found guilty of “provoking ethnic hatred” because the remarks he made to other Uyghur cellmates “sowed discord among the ethnic groups and created ethnic antagonism.” This crime also landed him the maximum prison sentence of 10 years as stipulated by Article 249. 

An excerpt taken from academic journal Crime and Corrections reveals that namāz is among the religious activities explicitly banned in prisons and re-education-through-labor facilities through Xinjiang. Image credit: Crime and Corrections, (2001) Issue 4 

While prisoners are allowed to retain their religious faith, prison authorities across China proscribe all forms of religious activities but allow prisoners to read religious books or silently chant scriptures. Article 2 of a provisional regulation issued by the Xinjiang Department of Justice explicitly prohibits all forms of religious activity such as participating in Ramadan, namāz, other forms of worship, or sermons in prisons and reeducation-through-labor facilities. However, many Muslim detainees and prisoners defied this prison rule and “shared a propensity to organize gangs when they perform namāz in groups,” according to an article published in Crime and Corrections in 2001. Congregational prayer, referred to as Salat al-Jama'ah, is highly valued among Muslims and is thought to be more spiritually enriching than solo prayer.  

In Xinjiang, namāz is a matter of concern for managing prisoners serving their sentences for endangering state security. A 2008 policy document examining the challenges faced by Xinjiang prison authorities states that these prisoners not only distort the history of Xinjiang, spread rumors, and incite ethnic hatred, but they also “use acts such as hunger strikes, suicide, namāz and feigned illness to disobey management and refuse reform.” 

Existing laws and regulations, however, have not clearly explained the criminal liabilities for performing namāz in prison. The crime of “sabotaging prison supervision,” defined in Article 315 of the Criminal Law, makes no mention of namāz or any other forms religious activity. It only stipulates that the following acts fall under the crime’s purview: (1) beating supervising personnel; (2) organizing other people under detention to sabotage supervision order; (3) assembling a crowd to make trouble, thereby disturbing normal supervision order; (4) beating, carrying out corporal punishment on or instigating other people to beat, carry out corporal punishment on other people under detention. 

It is not immediately clear whether performing namāz fulfills the criteria of stipulation 2 as stated above. Assuming it does, Ismayil’s case might suggest that the three instances of namāz he performed on January 25, February 17, and March 3 of 2018 were already sufficient to reach the threshold for the maximum prison sentence of three years.  

Read Part II.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Rare Sentence Reduction for Falun Gong Follower

Shaoguan Intermediate People’s Court, which granted Yu a seven-month sentence reduction. Image credit: Baidu Maps 

Acts of clemency for Chinese religious and political prisoners have become increasingly rare in recent years. This decrease is the result of Xi Jinping’s hardline approach to both dissent and unorthodox religions, coupled with a sharp drop in judicial transparency. An exception took place in the summer of 2022 when Yu Rongxin (余荣新), a long-time Falun Gong practitioner in Guangdong, was granted a seven-month sentence reduction by the Shaoguan Intermediate People’s Court in June. 

Yu, born 1972, and wife Xie Qing (谢清), born 1966, were both residents of Jiangmen, Guangdong Province, and Falun Gong practitioners. Their case was highlighted on the Guangdong Province Anti-Cult website as a homepage news item in April 2019.  

The couple were summoned by police on September 18, 2017 and detained the next day for violating Article 300 of the Criminal Law, “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” They were subsequently arrested on October 26 of the same year. 

The Yuan bills with propaganda messages. Image credit: sohu.com 
The anti-cult website reported that Yu and Xie were both long-time Falun Gong practitioners, starting in 1993 and 1997, respectively. Yu was the Falun Gong guidance counselor for the Jiangmen branch during the mid-1990s. For this, he received administrative punishment in 1999.

The couple’s 2017 legal ordeal started when police searched their residence and found numerous materials with Falun Gong messages. Those included: 3,834 Yuan bills printed with propaganda messages, 425 copies of pamphlets, 68 optical discs, two USB flash drives, two SD cards, one each of an MP3 player and MP4 player pre-loaded with Falun Gong content, and computers and printers.  

According to Falun Gong media, the couple was first tried by the Jiangmen Pengjiang District Court. On December 28, 2018, Yu was sentenced to eight and a half years and Xie to seven and a half years. Both appealed. 

The anti-cult website reported that on March 12, 2019, the Jiangmen Intermediate Court rejected their appeals and upheld the original sentences. The court found that the couple had been spreading cult messages by spending the message-laden Yuan while shopping as well as gathering others to practice Falun Gong. The court deemed those offenses to be “extremely severe.” 

Yu, according to the Falun Gong media, was sent to the Beijiang Prison in Shaoguang City; while Xie was sent to the Provincial Women’s Prison. 
Beijiang Prison. Image credit: Southern Metropolis Daily 
Dui Hua has raised the two names in recent years, pressing for updates.  

According to sources, Yu has behaved well in prison. He and his wife exchanged letters of encouragement with each other. The Beijiang prison looked upon those exchanges favorably and submitted a sentence reduction request for Yu. The women’s prison apparently did not submit a request for a sentence reduction for Xie. Yu will be released in August 2025, while Xie will be released in March 2025.  

Dui Hua's research into Shaoguan Intermediate Court's sentence reduction and parole decisions released in 2021 and 2022 revealed that clemency granted to cult practitioners is uncommon. There were more sentence reduction approvals for prisoners who committed drug-related crimes and violent crimes than there were for "cult" prisoners, even though those offenses were mostly non-violent. When approvals were given, the courts granted shorter periods of reduction than those recommended by the prisons.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

“All People Act Together” Supporters Imprisoned, Part II: Public Disruption, Limited Reach

A logo used by the APAT. Image credit: 時事能見度 YouTube page 

The “All People Act Together” (APAT), or quanmin gongzhen (全民共振) social media campaign was launched in early 2018 by Chinese dissidents overseas. The campaign encourages rights defenders to engage in collective action and protests on days of importance to China and the Chinese Communist Party.  

Part I of this article focused on how the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is used against APAT supporters. In such cases, supporters were imprisoned for their behavior on social media, including deleted private conversations. Part II looks at cases where supporters were charged with disrupting public services and preparing for a terrorist activity. 

Disrupting Public Services 

Dui Hua’s research into court judgments revealed that Li Yunzhu (李韫竹) was found guilty of injuring stability maintenance officers and sentenced to eight months in prison in Yinchuan, Ningxia, in August 2019. On February 24, 2019, the officers were sent by guobao, China’s domestic security police, to Li’s home to give her “thought reform” after she circulated footage with an APAT thumbnail tag of “Down with the CCP.” The video allegedly incited the Chinese people to defend their rights and take to the streets every day at 3 PM during the “Two Sessions,” China’s biggest annual gathering of its rubber stamp parliament and political advisory body which discuss plans for national priorities. 

It is unclear what prompted Li to circulate the video or why she was drawn to APAT. The judgment only stated that Li was planning to lodge an appeal in Beijing in December 2018 over a consumer lawsuit but was persuaded by police to stay in her home province Ningxia. The police arranged for her appellate trial to begin the following March. Li refused the arrangement. She expressed concerns about being unable to travel to Beijing during the Two Sessions, despite knowing full well that transport disruptions are commonplace in order to allow for senior government and party leaders to travel to Beijing during the Two Sessions.  

Li was angry upon discovering that the appellate trial date was decided without her consent. She allegedly insulted the stability maintenance officers and asked them to leave her home. She ended up throwing a kitchen knife which left one of them injured. Li completed her eight-month prison sentence for disrupting public services on October 25, 2019. 

Preparing for a Terrorist Activity  

Ethnic Korean Jin Bo (金波) was released from a Heilongjiang prison on April 26, 2022 for plotting what prosecutors called a “violent APAT activity” on May 1, 2018. He was found guilty of preparing for a terrorist activity, one of the terrorism/extremism offenses added to the Criminal Law in 2015. The charge stemmed from him possessing explosive devices and Molotov cocktails which prosecutors believed Jin would use on the Labor Day holiday in connection with APAT. 

Jin admitted to making the explosives primarily to seek revenge for his 444-day wrongful imprisonment. In August 2014, Jin was taken into custody on suspicion of extortion. He was later acquitted and given state compensation. Jin’s father and father-in-law passed away while he was incarcerated. Jin felt guilty for not being able to arrange for their funerals and blamed his business partners for framing him. He also expressed disillusionment with petition bureau officials who repeatedly ignored his complaints. Jin scaled China’s Great Firewall to learn about APAT and took part in online discussions after his unsuccessful attempts to seek redress.  

Jin’s case indicates that some people who lose trust in China’s justice system find APAT appealing. A substantial portion of the prosecutor’s arguments focused on the “reactionary,” “anti-party,” and “anti-China” comments Jin made online. In April 2018, he wrote “What is APAT for? For revolution! What is Revolution? As the name suggests, it aims to overthrow the old and establish the new.” Days before he was criminally detained on April 27, 2018, he claimed to have lost confidence in China and expressed desires to begin retaliation. He ordered materials to make explosives via WeChat, claiming that he might set himself ablaze and throw bombs at his business partners. Although Jin confessed to posting radical comments online, he stated in his defense that he did not personally know any “overseas pro-democracy activists” nor did he join any overseas terrorist organizations. 

In this case, prosecutors characterized the whole APAT campaign as a “violent political activity” organized by overseas forces because of Jin’s way of expressing grievances. However, there is insufficient evidence that other APAT supporters in China or overseas call for violent political resistance. 

Members of San Francisco’s Chinese community participating in the "May 1st National Resonance" event in front of the Chinese Consulate. Image credit: CK via RFA 

APAT fell flat. Fewer netizens in China have answered the APAT appeal than during 2011 “Jasmine Revolution.” Overseas APAT supporters in the United States, Canada, and Australia reportedly organized small rallies outside of the Chinese consulates in 2018-2019, but these had  limited reach in China due in part to pervasive internet censorship and surveillance. Additionally, APAT was hotly disputed even within Chinese dissident circles, with some saying that it was an entrapment attempt devised by the Ministry of State Security to round up political dissenters in one fell swoop. Regardless of the controversy, Dui Hua believes that the four people discussed in this post represent a small portion of criminal cases and more people could have been sentenced for espousing support for APAT. More research is needed to uncover the fate and the acts of other APAT supporters, as well as their motivations for sympathizing with the campaign.  

Thursday, July 14, 2022

"All People Act Together" Supporters Imprisoned, Part I: Social Media Campaign Draws Ire

A screenshot from a video about the “All People Act Together” campaign. Image credit: 一平論政 Youtube page 

“All People Act Together” (APAT), or quanmin gongzhen (全民共振), is a social media campaign launched in early 2018 by Chinese dissidents overseas. The campaign calls on rights defenders to collectively seek redress and make their voices heard by staging street protests across Chinese cities on occasions of special historical, social, or political importance such as International Workers’ Day (May 1), the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (July 1), and National Day (October 1).  

Proponents of APAT believe that resistance movements can “reverberate” or “resonate” around the country and overwhelm the stability maintenance regime if the outbreaks are simultaneous and sustained. They predict CCP’s eventual demise when it runs short of resources to keep up its increasingly expensive operations.  

The CCP’s zeal in crushing dissent to maintain stability has created a domestic security system so costly that it is sapping funds required elsewhere to support the country’s economic health. APAT emerged against the backdrop of China’s spending on internal security, which has exceeded the national defense budget since 2010. The rise in spending on domestic security is most evident in western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, but a sizable portion is spent in Han-majority regions keeping potential troublemakers in residential surveillance, running “black jails,” or forcing dissenters to “travel” elsewhere — all part of the longstanding scheme designed to muzzle protestors during sensitive occasions.  

Part I of this post focuses on APAT’s reach and cases in which supporters were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble (PQPT).” Part II will look at cases involving charges of disrupting public services and preparing for a terrorist activity. 

The nature of APAT is similar to the online calls for the 2011 Tunisia-inspired “Jasmine Revolution” manifested in the form of “strolling” protests around McDonald’s on Wangfujing shopping streets and spots in other cities. Chinese state media have been largely silent on the planned protests, but social media accounts recounted major shows of police force to disperse small crowds of seemingly curious onlookers that had gathered in Beijing and Shanghai. 

APAT appears to have limited reach in China. No visible protests linked to APAT have been reported. However, prominent dissidents including Hu Jia were reportedly warned by police not to take part in or publicly discuss APAT. There was scant media coverage and the fate of those who openly espouse APAT in China has gone largely unnoticed. Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has information on six individuals who were given coercive measures for heeding the calls of APAT. Of them, four received prison sentences for a variety of crimes ranging from PQPT and disrupting public services to preparing for terrorist activities. 

Picking Quarrels & Provoking Trouble

Xue Renyi, an advocate of Greenleaf Action, who was arrested on May 1, 2018 for walking in Jiefangbei Square in Chongqing while wearing a green leaf. Image credit: Twitter via RFA 

The first APAT supporter known to have been imprisoned is Xue Renyi (薛仁义). He was taken into custody on May 1, 2018 after posting a photograph of himself “strolling” in Chongqing People’s Liberation Monument Square while carrying a green leaf in his shirt pocket. Some other people were seized on the same day; they were warned off speaking out online or giving interviews with foreign media after being released from custody. 

Xue is the founder of Green Leaf Action, an environmental group which promoted food safety, clean air, and clean water. The group stood accused by police of being “controlled” and “manipulated” by foreign forces. Xue’s three-year sentence became known to the outside world only when his fiancée received his letter from prison one year after he was detained. Xue completed his sentence for PQPT in Dianjiang Prison without receiving a sentence reduction. He was released on April 30, 2021. 

Gao Zhigang’s case materials and ID card. Image credit: Provided by Geng Guanjun via RFA 

In a separate case, Gao Zhigang (高志刚) was sentenced to 10 months in prison for PQPT in 2020 even without showing up at any APAT protest spot. Gao was accused of forwarding a video which called on people to join a rally in Taiyuan’s Wuyi Square on the 2019 National Day. Additionally, Gao sent the video to an “overseas democracy activist” known by the name of Geng Guanjun (耿冠军). Geng fled to the United States in 2018 and has been a target of attack by patriotic internet users for his “reactionary” views and anti-China remarks. After completing his sentence in August 2020, Gao spoke to Radio Free Asia claiming that he never expected the conviction would be based entirely on his private conversations from his social media account which he had deleted prior to his detainment in October 2019. 

Read Part II here. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Patriotic Acts as Cause for Non-Prosecution

Changle government building. Image credit: Google images 

Chinese prosecutors have the discretion not to indict an accused when the evidence is insufficient or when his/her perceived threat to society is minimal. However, these are not necessarily the most important reasons. Dui Hua’s research found that criminal suspects deemed patriotic can also avoid prosecution in mainland China. 

China’s long-time conviction rate of over 99.9 percent often overshadows the judicial progress it has made in other areas. While the acquittal rate dipped to its lowest point at 0.052 percent in 2021, Chinese prosecutors have approved fewer arrests and indicted fewer suspects in recent years. Statistics released by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in March 2022 indicated that the country’s non-prosecution rate increased from 9.9 percent in 2019 to 16.6 percent in 2021. 

Non-prosecution embodies the lenient aspect of China’s largely punitive criminal justice system. Among the major beneficiaries of non-prosecution are juvenile delinquents, the elderly, severely ill, first-time offenders, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Prosecutors can also exercise discretion and choose to not indict suspects if they have made “major contributions to the state or society” or performed “meritorious deeds.” Existing laws and regulations leave undefined what acts are considered “major contributions,” but the following case Dui Hua discovered concerning a Hong Kong “patriot” provides insight into this term. 

On October 21, 2019, the Public Security Bureau of Changle District, Fuzhou, decided not to prosecute a Hong Kong resident surnamed Chan. The bureau carried out criminal detention in December 2013 and listed Chan as a wanted criminal online on June 18, 2014. Chan was suspected of “organizing an illegal border crossing,” for allegedly forging identity documents for a group of 11 Chinese nationals in their applications for tourist visas at the US Consulate in Guangzhou. Their application was unsuccessful because the documents were found to be counterfeit by the consulate staffers. 

Chan flew back to Fuzhou from Hong Kong and turned himself in on October 14, 2019, six years after his alleged offense took place. That same day, Chan was released on bail pending further investigation. About a week later, the procuratorate issued a non-prosecution decision, citing the various patriotic acts he had performed in Hong Kong. 

Fuzhou Changle International Airport. Chan flew here from Hong Kong before turning himself in, six years after his alleged crime. Image credit: Fuzhou Changle International Airport 

First among these acts, Chan served as the then-incumbent executive vice president of the Hong Kong Family Union (New Territories West Branch), a pro-China non-governmental organization which helps mainland residents to emigrate to Hong Kong. During his tenure, Chan allegedly organized and participated in multiple activities to promote love for the motherland and Hong Kong. Chan was given credit for carrying out stability maintenance and secret investigation work for the Hong Kong Liaison Office during “Occupy Central,” the civil disobedience movement which paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for 79 days in late 2014.  

On October 13, 2014, protestors camp out in the streets of Hong Kong as part of the Occupy Central movement. Image credit: L-BBE / CC BY 3.0 

Furthermore, Chan was commended for performing security work for the official celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule in 2017, the only year Xi Jinping attended the handover celebrations in the former British colony as Chinese president, as of this writing. More notably, Chan was cited for his “fearless” and “tenacious struggle” against the “radical opposition forces” during the recent 2019 protests, as well as his unified actions in supporting the Hong Kong government. The decision not to prosecute Chan came as Hong Kong protesters fought citywide pitched battles with police in an eruption of public anger against an already suspended extradition bill that critics saw as a fundamental threat to the former British colony’s civic freedoms and rule of law. 

Prosecutors also outlined other reasons for not indicting Chan, but the arguments are not without flaws. For example, one reason for not indicting Chan is because he turned himself in even though he did so six years after the public security bureau carried out criminal detention. Additionally, it was argued that the seriousness of Chan’s crime was mitigated because his attempt to organize illegal crossings failed. Chan did not complete the crime; he only attempted to commit it, argued the prosecutors. Even with this reasoning, it is unclear why the prosecutors did not charge Chan with forgery, covered by Article 280 of the Criminal Law, since the non-prosecution decision found that Chan did indeed forge identity documents for 11 Chinese nationals. 

The crime of organizing illegal border crossings is known to incur serious penalties. Dui Hua previously reported that the crime resulted in Korean missionary Cho Young-joo getting a seven-year prison sentence. Cho was not given lenient punishment for the humanitarian mission he conducted across the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Prominent house church leader Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) has more than a year to serve before completing his seven-year prison sentence in Yunnan for the same crime. Also convicted of the same crime are two Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters who attempted to flee to Taiwan by speedboat but were intercepted by mainland coastguards in August 2020. The duo is still serving their sentences in Guangdong. 

Map showing the route (in green) from Kunming to Jinghong, from where Cho intended to travel to Mongla. Source: Gaode Map 

The treatment given to Chan was vastly different to that of Cho, Cao, and two of the Hong Kong 12, despite all of them being accused of organizing illegal border crossings. Chan’s preferential treatment calls into question whether “patriots” enjoy impunity for the criminal offenses they committed in mainland China. This raises speculation that Chan is not the only case of prosecutors dropping criminal charges against the so-called “patriots” because of meritorious services rendered in Hong Kong, China, or elsewhere. 

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 IslamBook.net 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, www.kaiwind.com, 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 Kaiwind.com showing reports on South China Church, including alleged abuses. Image credit: Kaiwind.com 

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 www.huananchurch.org. 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.