Tuesday, September 12, 2023

China’s 2022 Acquittal Rate Lowest in Two Decades

A 2021 trial for a murder case, which was livestreamed on China Court Trial Online. Image credit: Kaifeng Intermediate People's Court, Henan Province  

Acquittal rates in China have always been low, but in 2022 the number decreased to a record low. According to the most recent China Law Yearbook, an annual official compendium released in 2023 that covers 2022, only 631 individuals (0.044 percent of the 1,431,585 defendants with effective judgments) were found not guilty by criminal courts in 2022. 

The conviction rate in 2022 was 99.95 percent, a record high according to statistics in the China Law Yearbook. The acquittal rates dropped every year in the decade after 2003. The most dramatic decrease happened in 2005, when the 0.256 percent acquittal rate was less than half of 2003’s already low 0.647 percent. In 2010, the acquittal rate fell below 0.1 percent for the first time and has never returned above this level. 

Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023

When Xi Jinping began his first term as Chinese president in 2013, many legal practitioners expressed optimism that acquittal rates would approach more “normal” levels as a result of proposed legal reforms aimed to strengthen procedural justice. Although what constitutes a “normal” acquittal level is not clearly defined, a five percent rate is often cited when the topic is discussed in China. Chinese legal authorities also overturned a series of high-profile convictions and took steps to strengthen measures to exclude confessions extracted through torture and other illegal evidence.  

For 2013, the acquittal rate rose briefly for the first time since 2003, growing annually from six acquittals per 10,000 adjudications to seven. The rates remained steady, climbing at a slow pace until 2018 when they dropped again to 0.057 percent, a 37 percent decrease compared to the previous year.  

Source: China Law Yearbooks, 2004-2023

Xi has spearheaded an effort to hold judges, prosecutors, and police officers accountable for wrongful convictions in cases that have since been retried. In 2021, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate investigated all of the 246 criminal cases that were re-tried and corrected since 2018 and found that in 22 of these cases, people had been wrongly jailed for more than 10 years. More than 500 prosecutors were punished, some of whom had already retired.  

The acquittal rate saw a brief rise to 0.084 percent in 2019. However, this reversal was short-lived. In the three years that followed, the rates have again dropped, to 0.068 percent in 2020, 0.052 percent in 2021, and then to 0.044 percent in 2022.  

Acquittals are even rarer in trials of endangering state security (ESS) crimes, which include subversion, inciting subversion, splittism, inciting splittism, obtaining or providing state secrets, and espionage.  From 2013-2016, only ten people were acquitted, according to statistics released by the Supreme People’s Court. The names and other details of these ten individuals are not known. Dui Hua is not aware of any acquittals for ESS crimes after 2016.

ESS acquittals (effective judgments), 2013-2016
Year No. of Acquittals of ESS Crimes
2013 2
2014 2
2015 0
2016 6
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics, Criminal Trials Vol. 6, 2013-2016

In a Human Rights Journal published in 2015, Dui Hua reported that the number of not-guilty judgments is influenced by efforts to avoid the payment of state compensation, marginalize defense attorneys, restrict judicial independence, and maintain stability. Some of these issues have continued, according to a 2022 legal journal re-posted by Shanghquan Law Firm. Additionally, judges realize that acquittals can adversely impact professional assessments for prosecutors because successful convictions are seen as a means for career advancement. There remains an unspoken rule that prosecutors can withdraw indictments and collaborate with judges to eliminate the possibility of non-guilty judgments or to hand out lighter punishments in cases where evidence against the accused is weak. 

One of the fundamental purposes of a criminal justice system is to protect innocent people from being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Despite efforts to overturn high-profile wrongful convictions, these instances likely represent a fraction of cases where defendants are wrongly charged with crimes. The persistently low acquittal rates over the years raise questions about how many more people are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. A court which exercises its authority to acquit in accordance with the law ensures systemic justice and procedural fairness; it is fundamentally different from relying on political whims to right past wrongs. As Xi rejects the notion of judicial independence, continues his crackdown on defense lawyers, and places state security and stability maintenance above all else, there is little in place to stop the near-guaranteed high conviction rate from continuing for the foreseeable future.  

Download: China Acquittals, 2003-2022 (Excel). Source: China Law Yearbook, compiled by Dui Hua.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Public Sentencing Rallies during the Pandemic

Three Chinese nationals were executed in a public sentencing rally in Wa State, a Chinese-speaking region in Northern Myanmar on May 14, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 

In May 2020, a video clip featuring the execution of three men in a public sentencing rally in Wa State of Myanmar became a trending topic on domestic social media. The three executed men were Chinese nationals who had reportedly robbed a gold shop and murdered the owner. While calling on the public to obey laws and customs overseas, Chinese news media sources appear to have expressed shock that the shaming ritual was replicated in Myanmar even though it has “long vanished in China.” 

Historically, public sentencing rallies were widely used in and outside China to crush political opponents and consolidate the power of the ruling class. In the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, mass rallies served to educate the public about the errors of class enemies, including Kuomintang members and landlords. 

While there are signs that these rallies have fallen into disuse in recent years, they continue to take place in some localities where they target drug offenders and members of organized crime. In these rallies, which continue to serve as propaganda to “frighten criminals, educate people, and maintain social stability,” judges hand out mass sentencing and mete out harsh punishments, including death sentences. Because of the nationwide lockdowns and stringent social distancing measures accompanying China’s zero-COVID policy in the two full years since 2020, the rallies that are typically held in large public venues like plazas, stadiums, and auditoriums in front of crowds numbering in the thousands seemingly vanished from public sight. 

However, Chinese government sources continued to report on small rallies that have been convened. Many of these rallies appeared no different from regular court trials when they were held indoors or virtually with no or limited public attendance. Regardless of the forms and scale, Chinese courts continue to retain the campaign-style rallies which legal experts have decried for years, arguing that the rallies disregard the presumption of innocence and mainly serve to shame prisoners. 

Indoor & Virtual Rallies 

A group of 14 drug traffickers were sentenced in what a Shenzhen court called a “public sentencing rally” on June 23, 2020. Image credit: Shenzhen News Network website 

Public sentencing rallies have long been integral to showcase the government’s efforts to combat drug crimes on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking, observed annually on June 26. The date is of special significance in China as it serves to commemorate Lin Zexu, officially lauded as an anti-opium hero for dismantling the opium trade in Guangdong before the First Opium War in 1839

China continued to feature a series of high-profile public sentencing rallies on the International Day against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking amid the outbreak of the pandemic. In Shenzhen, a rally was held on June 23, 2020 to announce the death sentences of two traffickers of methamphetamine. The sentences had previously been determined by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court and subsequently approved by the Supreme People’s Court. On the same day, the intermediate court also publicly sentenced ten people involved in a drug case. 

Unlike a widely reported rally in Lufeng County, Guangdong, where two courts sentenced 10 criminals to death in front of tens of thousands of people including children on December 16, 2017, the 2020 Shenzhen rally was not attended by any public spectators due to the stringent social distancing measures and anti-pandemic curbs at the time. The rally took place instead in a courtroom where only a judge and a clerk could be seen, according to an online video published on the Shenzhen News Network website. None of the defendants appeared in front of the judge to receive judgments. They were seen in a synchronous video in Shenzhen No.2 Detention Center wearing face masks, handcuffed, and escorted by security guards while the judge announced the death sentences. 

The duo was executed on the same day immediately after the rally ended. In the same rally, the judge announced that another drug trafficker was sentenced to life imprisonment and that ten other defendants were convicted of manufacturing, selling and transporting drugs, and illegal possession of firearms. 

Courts outside of Guangdong have also been eager to convene sentencing rallies in campaigns against drug abuse on or before the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In 2021, the Dandong Intermediate People’s Court of Liaoning Province held a rally in a courtroom where 13 handcuffed drug offenders stood in front of the judge in a courtroom to receive prison sentences ranging from nine years’ imprisonment to death with a two-year reprieve. A post published on the Liaoning High Court website claimed that the rally, which was attended by less than two dozen spectators, manifested “a high-pressure crackdown on drug crimes, effectively suppressed the arrogance of drug criminals, and contributed to the construction of a harmonious and safe Dandong.” 

Four defendants received judgments in a public sentencing rally convened by the Pingnan County People’s Court of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region as part of the campaign to combat environmental pollution. Photo image: Pingnan County People’s Court website 

It must be noted that sentencing rallies are not exclusively used against drug traffickers. In May 2021, a local court in Guangxi convened a virtual rally for four people convicted of illegally disposing of hazardous substances. As with the 2020 Shenzhen rally, the defendants received their judgments via video while handcuffed in a detention center. This rally was held as part of the open day organized by the Pingnan County People’s Court to educate the public about environmental protection. It was sparsely attended by only 12 people from the local community, according to information provided by the court website. 

200-Spectator Rally in Yancheng, Jiangsu 

Twenty-two criminal suspects were hauled into a sentencing rally attended by over 200 people in Yancheng, Jiangsu on October 28, 2020. Image credit: China Central Television 

Despite the onerous zero-COVID measures that were in full swing in 2020, public attendees were occasionally allowed to take part in sentencing rallies of a smaller scale. The Yancheng Intermediate People’s Court in Jiangsu Province invited over 200 people from the National People’s Congress, members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, journalists, village cadres, and resident representatives to the rally in Longgang Township on December 28, 2020. The 22 defendants manufactured banned substances including hydroxylamine hydrochloride, chlorophenyl, hydrochloric acid, and toluene. They could be seen wearing white hazmat suits with face masks while receiving judgments in front of the judge and the spectators. 

Of the 22 defendants, three were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Each of them was accused of selling methamphetamine weighing 4,000 to 6,000 grams (about 8.82 to 13.23 pounds). The other defendants received prison sentences from 22 months to 11 years for manufacturing hydroxylamine hydrochloride totaling 1,106 grams (about 2.44 pounds).  

Student Spectators in Hainan 

(Top to bottom) Dozens of Hainan school students, all seen wearing uniforms and face masks, sat in rows in a public sentencing rally held at the Danzhou District People’s Court on April 24, 2020. Image credit: The Paper 
As public sentencing rallies serve as sites of expressive punishment, teenage students are also required to attend such events as part of their legal education (法制教育). Images published by the Hainan court website show dozens of students in school uniforms sitting in rows to watch nine drug defendants receive prison sentences from ten months to 15 years’ imprisonment on April 24, 2020. The defendants were accused of selling large quantities of ecstasy and other counterfeit drugs. 

It was not the first time young students were required to watch public sentencing rallies. In June 2018, two drug dealers received death sentences in Haikou in front of hundreds of people, many of whom were students wearing school uniforms. The duo was executed following the rally. The executions took place elsewhere at a designated venue, so the students did not witness the actual executions.  

Outdoor Rally in Guangxi against Gangland Crimes 

Traditional sentencing rallies held in large outdoor public spaces did not entirely vanish during the pandemic. On June 28, 2020, an outdoor rally was held in Donglan County, Guangxi, to publicly arrest and sentence gangland criminals. The rally was not held in a courtroom but in a sports stadium. Available sources did not state how many spectators attended, but the image below shows rows of police officers alongside dozens of public spectators. At the back of the crowds, criminal suspects and defendants stood in a row in front of the judge’s podium. They could be seen wearing the typical white hazmat protective suits and facing the group of public spectators. 

An outdoor rally in Donglan County, Guangxi, on June 28, 2020, during which alleged criminals were publicly arrested and sentenced. Image credit: Wei Hao / Weixin 

Efforts to ban public executions 

China’s decision to ban public executions dates back to 1979, while “perp walks” for sex workers were banned more recently in 2010. The Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice jointly issued notices in 1984 and 1986 prohibiting public parades before executions, saying that such events provided opportunities for overseas counterrevolutionary propaganda to “slander” China. 

Public executions (as well as the broader use of capital punishment) were thought to be one of many human rights-related objections to China’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a point Dui Hua executive director John Kamm recalled in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed. In the run-up to the opening of the Games, another joint opinion was issued in March 2007 to prohibit public parades before executions as well as to enforce the rights of the executed, including last visitation rights for the family. Criminal Procedure Law also stipulates that while the public should be notified of executions, the execution itself should not be held in public. 

Going Forward 

Over the years, legal experts have spoken out against public arrests and sentencings, branding them “campaign-style justice” that emphasize swift and severe punishment. However, the general public tends to empathize with the need to deter crimes by publicly shaming the offenders. In its seventh annual report, the Collaborative Innovation Center of Judicial Civilization released its latest data collected over 24,354 surveys across 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. It finds that over 62.5 percent of respondents expressed support for public arrest and sentencing rallies in 2018. The following year, the approval rate declined to 55.5 percent but bounced back to 61.3 percent in 2020-2021. Of them, 19.1 percent in 2020-2021 expressed strong support for retaining the practice, lower than 23.7 percent in 2018 but higher than the 15.8 percent in 2019. 

A public trial is intended to boost transparency by informing the public about who the accusers are, the nature of the charges, and the evidence against the accused. It is fundamentally different from a public sentencing rally — a form of show trial where the judgment and sentence of a criminal case already determined in court is publicly announced in front of crowds of public spectators. Such rallies serve a political agenda to demonstrate the government’s determination to fight crimes, blame and shame criminals, and educate the public about their alleged crimes. In response to a controversial sentencing rally held in Langzhong, Sichuan, in 2016, Professor Yu Qilin of China University of Political Science and Law remarked that trial fairness and justice is maintained through procedure transparency in the courtroom, not public spectacle.

The use of public sentencing rallies to shame the accused appears to be on a downward trend in recent years thanks to China's strict adherence to the hard-line zero-COVID policy. A decade ago, people accused of endangering state security, terrorism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, as well as well as “wild imams” who preached illegally in the restive region, were condemned in front of crowds of thousands. At the very least, the rallies discussed in this post were downsized and used in a narrower scope to target drug traffickers and members of organized crime. Additionally, individuals shamed in the rallies were no longer seen wearing confessional placards or driven through the streets in open trucks.  
The practice of public shaming never really vanished even when strict pandemic measures were in force. On December 28, 2021, four men accused of smuggling people across an international border were publicly shamed in Guangxi. They were flanked by police officers and paraded through the streets of Jingxi City. Although authorities claimed that the parade served as a warning of what could happen if people violated the pandemic curbs, Beijing News editorial remarked that “the measure seriously violates the spirit of the rule of law and cannot be allowed to happen again.” With the lifting of pandemic curbs following nationwide protests in late 2022, it remains to be seen whether large-scale sentencing rallies will reemerge. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Promoter to Pariah: Xinling Famen’s “Unorthodox Buddhism”

Junhong Lu giving the “Grand Dharma Talk” in Singapore’s National Stadium in 2017. Image credit: Ginny Gray / CC BY-SA 4.0 

In March 2022, Dui Hua released a study titled “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” identifying 41 religious groups whose members are at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Dui Hua has since uncovered another unorthodox religious group called Xinling Famen (心灵法门) that is facing similar repression. Other recently uncovered unorthodox groups include Corporate Christ (团体基督), which is thought to have splintered from the Church of Almighty God (全能神), and the House of Joseph (约瑟家), which originated from the Spirit Church (灵灵教).   

Xinling Famen, also known as the Guanyin Citta Dharma Door, is among the newly emerged Buddhist groups which have gained traction in China and overseas. Its founder Lu Junhong (卢军宏, aka Richard Lu) was born in 1959 in Shanghai, studied in Sydney, and eventually obtained Australian citizenship. After graduating from university in the 1990s, Lu promoted Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture while serving as a director of Australia Oriental Media Group, a Chinese-language radio station operated in Sydney. In 2010, Lu founded Xinling Famen. The group has gained popularity among Chinese immigrants in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Southeast Asia.  

According to public statements made by Chinese government agencies, Xinling Famen has attracted three million followers. The group, however, claims to have as many as seven million members worldwide, and hundreds of thousands tune in daily to listen to Lu’s ideas online. Lu’s teachings were reportedly introduced to China in 2009, one year before the group was founded.

Unorthodox Buddhism

While Xinling Famen describes itself as a Buddhist group, its worship style is similar to that of some Pentecostal churches and charismatic healing cults, according to Chinese Religions Going Global. Adherents are said to burst into tears with their arms outstretched as Lu performs spiritual healing. Lu instructed his followers to read different combinations of sutras from Buddhist canons known as “little houses” to get rid of bad karma. He also provided a list of specific rules that followers must abide by in order to maximize good karma.  

Nevertheless, China’s anti-cult propaganda accuses Lu of appropriating Buddhist terms to mobilize a cultic movement centered on his personality. Lu called himself a reincarnation of Guanyin Bodhisattva and said that he had divine power to read one’s totems (referring to Chinese zodiac signs) in heaven and see a person’s past, present, and future. Lu is also said to have amassed a fortune by selling “little houses” and charging exorbitant apprenticeship fees. China imposed an entry ban on Lu before he passed away from illness in November 2021. 

A Xinling Famen center in Ashfield, Australia. Image credit: Guan Yin Citta Dharma Door Facebook page 

Xinling Famen also stirred up controversy overseas. Buddhist communities from Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong have claimed that Lu’s healing power is a complete fabrication and that his so-called divine power deviates from mainstream Buddhist ideology. Despite the controversy, China remains the only place in the world where Xinling Famen members are arrested and imprisoned. 

Promoting the “Chinese Dream” 

Lu’s Australia Oriental Media Group (AOMG) had an intricate relationship with Chinese state media in its infancy. Prior to the radio station’s official launch in December 2007, state media including China News Service lauded it as a new force of the ever-expanding Chinese language media in Australia and the first such radio station operated in Sydney established by a mainland Chinese immigrant. Less than two years later, in the summer of 2009, China National Radio (CNR) announced that it had signed a content collaboration agreement with AOMG, under which AOMG would broadcast some CNR regular programs and conduct local interviews for CNR special programs.  

Agreement signing ceremony between CNR and AOMG on July 4, 2009, in Sydney. Zhao Hui, then vice president of CNR (standing) and Lu (seated left of Zhao) attended. Image credit: CNR 

In October 2013, Lu and Xinling Famen appeared in an interview profile conducted by a former People’s Daily correspondent for Aust333, another Chinese-language media outlet based in Sydney. The profile mentioned that Lu received a “British Community Honours Award” in 2012, repeating Lu’s false claim that it was awarded by the UK House of Lords. In fact, the award is given by a UK-registered charity that holds the ceremony at the House of Lords. The profile also praised Lu for promoting Chinese culture through his radio station and his Buddhist organization.  

The interview ended by asking Lu how Xinling Famen would contribute to Xi Jinping’s idea of the “Chinese Dream.” Lu responded with talking points typically seen in Chinese propaganda, saying that the realization of the dream was “of greater and far-reaching significance to those of us overseas Chinese living overseas and leaders of overseas Chinese circles” and that “only when the country is strong, we overseas Chinese will be prouder and not be bullied.” He further stated that realizing the dream “requires the selfless dedication of Chinese people all over the world” and closed by discussing Xinling Famen’s recent event in Taiwan as an example of how the organization could promote cross-Strait understanding and would contribute to the realization of the “Chinese Dream.” 

Lu (second from left) with a group of Chinese delegates during a visit to Sydney: Zhan Yannong (third from left), then president of People’s Daily; Ambassador Li Huaxin (fifth from left), then Chinese Consul General in Sydney, and Xue Meng (far right), then head of People.cn Australia. Date unknown. Image credit: Aust333 

Within two years of the interview, the relationship had soured. State Media started to label Xinling Famen as a cult, Lu’s books were banned, and his dubious awards came into question.  

Conviction under Article 300 

The first known case of imprisonment involving Xinling Famen was concluded in Inner Mongolia in 2015. The Ewenki Minority Autonomous Banner People’s Court convicted a woman surnamed Meng of “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law,” and gave her to a suspended sentence of three years. This is the only case with information in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database in which a Xinling Famen member was convicted of Article 300. 

The court judgment stated that Meng converted to Xinling Famen in July 2014. In December, police searched her home and found 133 “cultic” books and 37 copies of CD-ROMS she stored in a refrigerator and a cupboard. That same month, police confiscated 100 copies of publicity materials that Meng was preparing to mail out from a supermarket. 

The punishment in this case is considered lenient because Meng admitted her guilt. The court mitigated her prison sentence also because the books and publicity materials had not yet been publicly circulated.

Illegal Business Activity Convictions 

Dui Hua has obtained three more court judgments involving Xinling Famen members. They were convicted not of Article 300, but of conducting illegal business activity which is typically used against the printing of the Bible and other religious publications. The three cases were all concluded in December 2016.  

In the first case, five Xinling Famen members received criminal punishment ranging from suspended sentences to five years in prison in Neixiang County, Henan, for printing 101,480 copies books worth ¥276,494. Although the publishing company owned by one of the defendants only made a profit of ¥28,480, the court ordered that each of the defendants pay a fine of ¥30,000. 

Table 1. Criminal punishment for Xinling Famen members    

The longest prison sentence of five years was given to Zhang Jianping, an apprentice of Lu Junhong. He admitted to printing books without a license. He stated in his defense that his original intent was to promote Buddhism and guide people towards a good path. He pleaded for leniency because his books were not reactionary, nor did he intend to profit from them financially. Guo Hui (郭辉), considered another principal offender in the case, received a four-year prison sentence. All the defendants have completed their prison sentences as of this writing. 

The second case, also concluded in Neixiang County, involved three defendants: Wang Xiaoyan (王小燕), Xia Songzhi (夏松芝), and Li Kehua (栗克华). Only Wang was known to be an adherent of Xinling Famen; she completed a five-year prison sentence on January 5, 2021. She received a remittance of over ¥300,000 from Xinling Famen members across China and entrusted Xia and Li to print 154,230 copies of books. 

Xia and Lu were the print shop owners and each of them received a suspended sentence of three years. Available sources did not state whether Xia and Lu were members of Xinling Famen. 

A screenshot of Xinling Famen materials offered through the organization's website. Image credit: Xinling Famen eBooks 

The third case in Taiyuan, Shanxi only involved one male defendant. Liu Shuangjian (刘双建), also a printshop owner, was accused of printing 13,260 copies of Xinling Famen sutras and 3,780 copies of Buddhist books which were not related to Xinling Famen. The Taiyuan Intermediate People’s Court ruled that only the Xinling Famen sutras, but not the Buddhist books, were illegal. Liu received a ¥5,000 down payment for the order to print the Xinling Famen sutras. The standard of conviction does not necessarily require an intent to establish a profitable business, but in this case the court did not accept the other Buddhist books he printed as evidence because he did not gain any profit from them. Assuming Liu served his full term without a sentence reduction, Liu was released from prison on July 15, 2018. 

Arrests & Prosecutions 

Dui Hua’s research into legal documents also found three cases involving Xinling Famen illegal religious books. The fate of these individuals remains uncertain because Dui Hua is unable to confirm whether they were convicted and given fixed-term prison sentences. 

In December 2016, Zhao Kun (赵坤) and Guo Hongmei (郭红梅) were prosecuted for illegal business activity in Tongshan District, Jiangsu. Zhao was accused of printing 30,000 volumes of Xinling Famen books worth approximately ¥60,000, while Guo allegedly printed 20,000 copies also worth around ¥60,000. 

Evidence suggests that Xinling Famen has made inroads with Chinese ethnic minorities. A Hui mother surnamed Ma and her son surnamed Han were indicted in Ji’nan, Shandong, also for illegal business activity on May 17, 2018. The prosecutors alleged that they sold 175,467 copies of Xinling Famen books worth ¥534,889.85 in the 14 months since May 2016. When the duo was detained on July 4, 2017, police also discovered 103,838 copies of Buddhism in Plain Terms, a book authored by Lu Hongjun, in their residence, storeroom, factory, and vehicles. Given the large number of publications which had been in public circulation, they are unlikely to have been given lenient punishment. 

An outreach event in Malaysia. Image credit: Guan Yin Citta Dharma Buddhism Twitter account 

In the third case, Fan, a Han Chinese who resided in Urumqi, was criminally detained for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” on June 25, 2020, but the charge was changed to Article 300 on July 9. The indictment stated that Fan organized an illegal religious activity for Krishna, a major deity in Hinduism. Police found in his residence 127 copies of Yuandun Famen propaganda and six “cultic” Xinling Famen publications. (Yuandun Famen 圆顿法门 is another unorthodox Buddhist group which has been banned by the Chinese government since December 1999). Available sources did not explain a connection between Xinling Famen and the Hindu deity. 

The cases discussed in this post indicate that Xinling Famen members accused of printing and selling religious books written by Lu Hongjung face criminal charges, including violating Article 300 and illegal business activity. These cases likely only represent a small portion of criminal cases, and Dui Hua believes that many more Xinling Famen members may have been prosecuted and sentenced in China, the only place in the world which criminalizes this unorthodox Buddhist group. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

UN Submission Focuses on Persecution of Women in Unorthodox Religions

The logo for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which monitors compliance with the Convention, both of which are abbreviated as CEDAW. Image credit: UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights 

The number of women incarcerated in Chinese prisons has grown faster than the population of incarcerated men over the past decade, and women are disproportionately represented in criminal cases involving unorthodox religious groups. These are the main points highlighted by Dui Hua in its submission to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)’s review of China.  

CEDAW, which also stands for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is sometimes described as an “international bill of rights for women,” is the treaty and human rights instrument adopted by the United Nations that provides guidance for nations to combat discrimination faced by women. Nations that have signed and ratified CEDAW – which includes all but six UN member states – are required to submit reports to the Committee on their compliance with the Convention every four years. NGOs are invited to make submissions informing country reports, which Dui Hua did for China’s, considered during CEDAW’s 85th session in the week of May 8, 2023. 

Dui Hua’s statement largely focused on female prisoners charged under Article 300, “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” The statement noted that women account for 8 percent of the prison population in China – a figure similar to that of the United States – but are thought to make up more than 40 percent of prisoners incarcerated for violating Article 300 from 1998-2016. More so, court records suggest that sentencing for these cases is comparatively harsh and that instances of clemency are rare. (The statement notes that there may have been an increase in clemency over the last two years but the lack of consistent data and transparency in legal processes makes this difficult to confirm.)  

Charts 1 and 2: Gender breakdown of unorthodox religious prisoners accused of violating Article 300 in the PPDB as of March 31, 2023.*

*Gender is not known for all cases. Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation

The submission builds on the research Dui Hua initially published in its report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China,” which identified a gender imbalance in sentencing under Article 300. Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) holds records on 11,400 women who have been subject to coercive measures for violating Article 300 due to their participation in unorthodox religious groups, which the Chinese Communist Party regards as cult organizations practicing non-state sanctioned faiths.

The statement also noted that women are the main target of negative stereotypes in China’s anti-cult propaganda. This messaging often relies on stereotypes of middle-aged, rural women being “weak-willed and psychologically vulnerable” and more vulnerable to “coercion or monetary enticements from cult organizations.” Such messaging, which comes from both national and regional organizations, itself seems to violate Article 5 of CEDAW which mandates that state parties take all appropriate measures to eliminate “prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

An image from the opening session of CEDAW’s 85th session on May 8, 2023. Image credit: UN Web TV 

Another focus of Dui Hua’s submission to China’s state report was the decline in judicial transparency. Dui Hua ended its submissions by recommending that the Chinese government increase the use of non-custodial measures and clemency for women prisoners and improve judicial transparency, writing: 

Dui Hua urges the Chinese government to resume providing meaningful access for the public to judicial documents, including indictments, court judgments, and decisions of all cases, regardless of the criminal offense involved. Transparency is particularly lacking in provinces with high populations of ethnic minorities. It also helps the public understand the reasons why women are placed in custody for peacefully pursuing their religious faith and other criminal offenses.   

This is not the first time Dui Hua has made a statement to a UN body concerning China’s treatment of female prisoners. Dui Hua previously made submissions to CEDAW during China’s previous review in 2014 and, more recently, to the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice in June 2019. 

Of the 193 UN member states, 189 have ratified CEDAW, binding them to the treaty and mandating that they participate in regular review every four years. The United States has not ratified CEDAW, placing it among a small group of countries – Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, Palau – and the Holy See that have yet to bind themselves to the treaty.  

Read the full statement 

Read the report “The Persecution of Unorthodox Religious Groups in China” 

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Eleven Years on the Lam: Indictment of a Tibetan “Robber”

Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet, on 22 September 2008. Image credit: Reurinkjan / CC BY 2.0 

Protests swept across the Tibetan plateau ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More than a decade later, China continues to track down and punish pro-independence protesters who took part in the unrest, some episodes of which turned deadly. An indictment uncovered by Dui Hua reveals how one protester was ultimately found and punished years after their alleged crime.  

This case revolves around a Tibetan known by the name of Kelsang Cheron (格桑谢郎) who was accused of robbery. He was formally arrested on October 18, 2019 in Zhuoni County, Gansu, for a crime he allegedly committed 11 years ago during the Tibetan protests that began on March 17, 2008. The case was transferred to the procuratorate for prosecution on January 7, 2020. 

Cropped image of the indictment confirming that arrest of Kelsang Cheron in October 2019 for robbery. His name was partially redacted, but the full name was revealed later in the indictment.

Zhuoni County (Jonê County 卓尼县) is located in the southeast of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one of the hardest hit regions during the 2008 Tibetan unrest. State news media reported that as of April 8, 2008 (about three weeks after the outbreak), 2,204 protesters reportedly turned themselves in and 432 people were in criminal detention for “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” (da za qiang shao 烧) across the prefecture. Derived from the denunciation of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, the phrase “beating, smashing, looting and burning” is highly ideological and permeates official accounts of popular protests, including June Fourth, regardless of whether violence is involved.  

It is questionable whether the robbery charge against Cheron is justified. Throughout the indictment the prosecutors failed to present evidence of him looting properties by means of force or fear. The allegations focused on his role as the principal organizer of the protests in Zhuoni County. First, he was accused of convening a secret meeting on March 17 with over 60 Tibetan monks in a forest near the Gongba Monastery to discuss the specifics of the protests and their plans to “smash” the public security bureau and county government office. The following morning, he gave Snow Lion flags to a group of 200 Buddhist monks to be used in a Buddhist ceremony. After the ceremony was over, the monks proceeded to march to the public security bureau and county government offices, where they allegedly waved the Snow Lion flags and chanted slogans about independence and “Long Live the Dalai Lama.”
Cropped image of the indictment showing the facts pertaining to Cheron’s crime of robbery. There is no evidence that Cheron engaged in looting or using force or intimidation, important requirements for the crime in many other jurisdictions outside of China.

Similarly, the indictment did not say whether the Tibetan monks looted anything valuable. However, evidence is cited of them damaging public property. They allegedly set fire and threw bricks and stones, destroying more than four million yuan worth of property such as fences, gates, computers, televisions, vehicles, and various data files. During the destruction, some protesters entered a primary school where they lowered the Chinese national flag and replaced it with the Snow Lion flag, which remained hoisted for days until police took the flag down on March 20.  

In May 2008, Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, protest China’s occupation while holding the Snow Lion flag. Image credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda / CC BY 2.0 

Cheron was on the run for 11 years until he was apprehended by Zhuoni Public Security on September 11, 2019. The indictment did not say whether he took part in the actual protests when the alleged violence occurred. It is only clear that he was the person who gave the protesters the Snow Lion flags on the morning of March 18 prior to the protests. The prosecutor argued that he was complicit in the commission of robbery with other Tibetan protesters. According to the indictment, Cheron refused to confess to his crimes during interrogation. 

The case of Cheron calls into question of the allegations of robbery, a crime many Tibetan monks were also accused of violating in 2008. Official accounts of his case bear resemblance to some of the problematic evidence about “beating, smashing, looting and burning” by pro-democracy protesters in 1989, with a notable example being Wang Jun (王军). Wang, 18 years old at the time, was caught at the scene during the April disturbance in Xi’an. In May, the Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court convicted Wang for arson and robbery and sentenced him to death for the two crimes. Upon appeal, the Shaanxi High Court, following the review instruction from the Supreme People’s Court, revised the combined sentence to death with two-year reprieve. The crime of robbery, which afforded him a life sentence, stemmed from Wang allegedly “taking advantage of the unrest and stealing an electronic calculator, cassette tapes, and pens.” Wang ultimately spent a total of twenty years in Shaanxi’s Fuping Prison before he was released in May 2009. 

Common charges against Tibetan protesters who participated in the 2008 unrest include robbery, arson, and gathering a crowd to disturb social order or to attack state organs. In the same year, the number of people tried for splittism nationwide doubled from 459 in the previous year to 926. By now, many of these Tibetan protesters are believed to have completed their prison sentences, but the fate of Kelsang Cheron remains shrouded in mystery. Dui Hua has been unable to find the judgment of his case. Given the abysmally low acquittal rates and his refusal to confess, it is likely that Kelsang Cheron is still behind bars for a disputable crime that he committed 14 years ago. 

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Child Welfare with Chinese Characteristics, Part II: An All-of-Society Effort

Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation 

Read Part I:  Rights & Responsibilities of Family & Schools

The revised Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of Minors (hereafter Protection of Minors Law) came into effect in June 2021, introducing 60 new articles into law. During Dui Hua’s Joint Program on Child Welfare Laws (JPCW) webinar in April 2022, experts from the United States and the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) discussed best practices for child protection legislation and the revisions to the Protection of Minors Law across six protection areas. Part I explored the roles of family and schools in child protection. This installment looks at the roles assigned to broader society, online content providers, government, and the judiciary. 

Child Protection Online

China’s regulation of youth gaming online drew international attention, partly because these measures were among the first of their kind. Even countries that balk at online censorship and lack of user privacy have expressed positive attitudes towards China’s efforts to set limits on youth online consumption. 

Much of this has been necessitated by the nation’s high internet penetration. According to the white paper Youth of China in a New Era, at the end of 2020 the number of netizens in China aged 6 to 18 reached 180 million, with the internet available to 94.9 percent of minors nationwide.  

Number of Chinese minors and internet accessibility rate from 2018 to 2020. Source: China Daily, Full Text: Youth of China in the New Era 

Online content regulations focus on reducing internet addiction and cyberbullying and combating sexual exploitation of minors. Article 74 states that internet product and service providers “shall not offer minors products and services that induce addiction,” and Article 75 specifically limits the time minors spend playing online games by minors and also restricts in-game purchases. 

During the JPCW, Li Chen, Deputy Director of the Division of Supervision of Minors’ Protection at the Child Welfare Department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, stated that the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology have created reporting channels for minor-related issues in order to help standardize reporting mechanisms and response times. The amendments require service providers to take measures to stop cyberbullying, stipulating that the parent or guardian of a minor who is cyberbullied has the right to inform service providers to delete, block, or disconnect links. If service providers are unresponsive to these complaints, the reporting channels should be leveraged to stop the illegal behavior. If found complicit or guilty, the website, individual, or platform may have their operating licenses revoked and face fines of up to one million yuan (roughly $150,000 USD). 

In May 2022, China Daily reported that prosecutors had obtained evidence of 2,584 cyberbullying cases through the compulsory reporting system since 2020 and found 1,604 cases in which staff (those working at schools, hospitals, hotels and in other industries related to minors) failed to report violations despite having compulsory reporting obligations, with 299 individuals being held accountable.  

The United States’ approach is less centralized. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 48 states or territories (including Washington, DC) include cyberbullying or electronic harassment in their anti-bullying legislation. While most states have criminal and school sanctions for cyberbullying, these laws vary by state in terms of scope. 

Former Facebook product manager Frances Heughen testifying to Congress on the effects of social media on youth mental health. Image credit: C-Span YouTube account 

In terms of online regulation, the clearest equivalent in the United States would be the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which was enacted in 1998, entered into force in 2000, and was revised in 2013. COPPA places requirements on websites that are directed to children under 13, with a focus on the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information of their data. Efforts to further revise COPPA have been underway – among the most recent being the “Protecting the Information of our Vulnerable Children and Youth Act” or the “Kids PRIVCY Act” introduced in 2021 by Representative Kathy Castor (R-Fla.) – but it is unclear if these will address issues beyond data collection or those affecting adolescents older than 13. The current law has also come under fire, both for being ineffective and outdated (for example, by the CEO of NGO Common Sense Media) and for being too restrictive (Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously argued that these restrictions impede early child education). 

In 2019, China instituted restrictions on the amount of time minors could play online games to 90 minutes a day on weekdays, and minors were banned from online gaming from 10 PM to 8 AM. In 2021, online gaming for minors was restricted further to Fridays, weekends, and public holidays for one hour per day. Restrictions like these and limitations on in-game purchases for minors were meant to combat gaming addictions that state officials sometimes refer to as “spiritual opium.”  

While federal implementation of such a law is unlikely, the state of Utah recently approved the Utah Social Media Regulation Act restricting minors’ use of social media in ways that bear some similarities to China’s gaming restrictions. The bill, signed by Governor Cox in March 2023, requires minors to obtain the consent of a guardian before joining social media platforms, marking the most aggressive step yet by state or federal lawmakers to regulate minors’ online behavior. It requires social media platforms to conduct age verification for all Utah residents and provide parents’ access to their teens’ accounts. The law also bans all ads for minors and bans minors from using such sites from 10:30 PM to 6:30 AM. 

Judiciary, Government & the “China Dream” 

Included in the Protection of Minors Law is the establishment of a special juvenile court office. According to the Global Times, citing Vice President of the SPC and juvenile court office director Yang Wanming, the new office is responsible for coordinating, guiding, and managing all juvenile trials and cases.  

In an effort to implement the new office’s mandate, the Protection of Minors Law amendments impose new requirements on public security organs, procuratorates, courts, and judicial administrative departments. These include Article 101 (designating dedicated institutions and appointing dedicated personnel to handle cases involving minors), Article 103 (keeping information about minors confidential), and Articles 110 to 112 (stipulating that adult representatives be present when minors – suspects, victims, or witnesses – are interviewed by judicial organs). Article 112 in particular requires female staff be present when the minor involved is female. 

(Clockwise top left) Judge Wang, Deputy Director Li, Judge Song, and Committee Member Chen during the JPCW. Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation 

In 2021, Beijing News reported that 24,035 criminal cases involving the infringement upon the rights and interests of minors (including trafficking, child molestation, and forced begging) were tried nationwide between 2016 and 2020. Of those cases, 24,386 offenders received punishment. From 2016 to 2020, more than 1.2 million civil cases involving the upbringing and guardianship of minors were brought to trial. 

The amendments to the Protection of Minors Law speak to an increased awareness by the Supreme People’s Court and the Chinese government that China’s youth face new challenges to their welfare that require novel approaches. These amendments also call on government social service agencies to improve the quality of support received by minors without guardianship. Li Chen, speaking during the JPCW shared that in 2021 13 authorities including the Ministry of Civil Affairs – which houses the Department of Children’s Welfare Affairs – jointly issued Opinions on Further Promoting Improvement, Upgrade and Innovation-Driven Transformation of Child Welfare Institutions to Pursue High-Quality Development. The opinions aimed to improve child welfare institutions at the provincial and municipal levels, and to foster increased integration between the upbringing of children and wraparound services like community-based medical treatment, rehabilitation, education, and social work.  

The Protection of Minors Law differs from the United States' approach to juvenile justice and child welfare, which is defined both by its child-focused, rights-based approach and its federalist orientation that creates variations between states with some federal regulation. By contrast, Beijing’s top-down approach stresses uniformity, setting responsibilities for various stakeholders to ensure compliance at the local level. A lingering question is how far the law will go in holding parents, schools, and other community stakeholders responsible for violations and derogations of child welfare.  

The Youth of China in the New Era white paper paints a rosy picture of the future of child welfare in China:  

In the future, with successive efforts from one generation of young people to the next, China will scale new heights in every dimension, achieving economic, political, cultural, ethical, social, and eco-environmental progress. The Chinese people will enjoy a happier and healthier life and the Chinese nation will become a proud and active member of the community of nations. The great Chinese Dream will eventually become a reality. 

The continued emphasis on rule of law and legal responsibility is evident in the changes to the Protection of Minors Law. What is less clear is if these changes will yield a system that is fair, enforceable, and subject to rule of law in line with that Chinese Dream. 

An All-of-Society Effort

The revised Protection of Minors Law also recognizes broader societal obligations to protect minors. Article 11 grants any organization or individual "the right to discourage, prevent, or report or make an accusation against an act...which is not conducive to the physical or mental health of minors or infringes upon the lawful rights and interests of minors.” These regulations share many of the same principles as those placed on schools and educational institutions. Using sexual or physical abuse as an example, Article 9 of the Opinion on Punishing Sexual Violations of Minors in Accordance of Law (2013) states that anyone with a special responsibility to minors – including supervising, educating, training, or providing medical treatment – has a right and obligation to report to the public security organ or the people's procuratorate if they discover that a minor under their supervision has been abused.  

As with the obligations for schools, the Protection of Minors Law’s view to societal obligations has similarities to CAPTA in the United States; however, by making reporting a legal responsibility through national legislation, China’s law potentially elevates the issue and could help create a uniform process for reporting, response, and resolution. Currently in the United States, each state may or does have different definitions, processes and responses to any reported abuse, of any kind. According to a 2019 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, approximately 47 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters are those who typically have frequent contact with children. The circumstances under which a mandatory reporter must make a report, and the process for doing so, vary by state.  

President Obama signs S. 3817, the “CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010.” Image credit: Pete Souza / Official White House Photo 

According to China Daily, Chinese procuratorates nationwide prosecuted 60,553 people for crimes against minors in 2021, up 5.7 percent year-on-year, of which 27,851 were for crimes involving sexual assault against minors. The Opinions on Establishing the Compulsory Reporting System for Cases regarding Infringement on Minors (Provisional) is meant to combat this trend by standardizing the compulsory reporting procedure system and specifying the parties considered mandated reporters. The reporting procedures enabled procuratorates, public security organs, and women's federations to set up more than 1,600 "one-stop" interview and rescue areas to shield minor victims from "secondary injuries" or re-traumatization that can occur during the reporting process.  

The revisions to the Protection of Minors Law reflect renewed appreciation for the role of society in protecting minors. The European Union’s Civil Society Roadmap for China notes that the revised Protection of Minors Law makes 13 mentions of “social organizations.” Furthermore, a State Council working group was established to assist civil society organizations focused on child protection in an effort to “achieve full coverage” of child protection by civil society organizations by 2025. 

Achieving such comprehensive child welfare mechanisms remains a challenge for any government. China’s recent developments reflect a top-down, all-of-government mentality that outlines obligations for all stakeholders, from the parent who might have to leave their child with relatives to centralized government bodies. China’s approach speaks to the adage that it “takes a village to raise a child,” and both the JPCW presenters and the legislation suggest that there is room for civil society organizations and grassroots participation. Whether or not these entities have the space and agency to fill these roles remains to be seen. 

The information in both parts of this article was gathered over the past year since the JPCW concluded. Dui Hua continues its dialogue with the SPC in an effort to stay abreast of developments and best practices for juvenile justice reform and the improvement of child welfare systems. These are areas in which countries the world over struggle to identify policies that will meaningfully address the issues facing youth, and dialogue on these issues is a reminder that sound child welfare policies help pave the way for a bright future.