Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Behind the Rarity of China's Acquittals

Image credit: 163.com

Acquittals are rare in China. The most recent China Law Yearbook, an official compendium, states that for every 10,000 people tried in criminal courts in 2013, just seven were acquitted. Although the number of people found not guilty rose incrementally in 2013, it plummeted from 6,617 to 727 per year between 2000 and 2012. Meanwhile the number of people whose cases were adjudicated trended upward, causing acquittals to account for just 0.07 percent of completed trials in 2013, falling from 1.02 percent in 2000. In comparison to China, Japan and Russia acquit less than 1 percent of defendants, while the Department of Justice reports that since 2001, the United States has convicted more than 90 percent of defendants each year.

Adjudications and acquittals for defendants in criminal trials, 2000-2013
Year Adjudications Acquittals % Acquitted
2000 648725* 6617 1.02
2001 740000* 6597 0.89
2002 706707 4935 0.70
2003 747096 4835 0.65
2004 767951 2292 0.30
2005 844717 2162 0.26
2006 890755 1713 0.19
2007 933156 1417 0.15
2008 1008677 1373 0.14
2009 997872 1206 0.12
2010 1007419 999 0.10
2011 1051638 891 0.08
2012 1174133 727 0.06
2013 1158609 825 0.07
* Dui Hua estimates
Sources: Dui Hua, China Law Yearbook

China Law Yearbook does not typically disaggregate acquittal data by crime, but in select years it has provided the number of people found not guilty in trials for endangering state security (ESS) and dereliction of military duty. (Dui Hua research indicates that ESS accounts for the vast majority of cases when these two crime categories are combined.) In 2002, only one of the 366 people tried in these types of cases was acquitted, while in 2004, there were five in 336. None of the 730 individuals tried for ESS with records in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database was found not guilty.

Indirectly addressing the paucity of acquittals as part of judicial reform efforts, the Central Politico-Legal Committee (PLC) announced its decision on January 20, 2015, to remove indictment and conviction rates from the list of performance indicators applied to judicial officials. While this should reduce pressure to convict, the number of not-guilty verdicts will continue to be influenced by efforts to avoid the payment of state compensation, marginalize defense attorneys, restrict judicial independence, and maintain stability, among others.


Chinese prosecutors tend to explain low acquittal rates as an indicator of good work. In 2012, a Beijing prosecutor told Legal Daily that a high level of “judicial precision” allowed good prosecutors to “filter out” cases likely to result in acquittal so that the majority of people standing trial were “guilty.” A Guangdong High People’s Court judge reiterated this sentiment by telling the paper that, “The reduction in acquittals, to a very large extent, is a manifestation of increasing awareness about evidence and law in our investigative and prosecutorial units.”

For prosecutors, acquittals signify failure to demonstrate guilt, and at least prior to the implementation of the PLC decision, they have a direct negative impact on performance evaluations. In 2005, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) issued evaluation measures stating that acquittal rates should not exceed 0.2 percent. Local procuratorates followed suit by putting forth “zero acquittals” as the ultimate goal in their annual work reports. Among various performance indicators, the acquittal rate was the most important, legal scholar Yuan Yicheng told Legal Daily in 2012.

Rather than risk acquittal, it is an unspoken rule that prosecutors decide to withdraw indictments. The procuratorate may formally drop the charges against a criminal suspect or remand a case for supplementary investigation, both with the approval of the court. If additional investigation is conducted, a suspect may be unable to fully regain their personal freedom during that time. By deciding not to pursue charges, prosecutors not only reduce acquittals but also dodge legal repercussions, since people without not-guilty verdicts face barriers to filing complaints against or winning compensation from government bureaus that wrongfully deprive them of their personal freedom.

Called a “black-box operation” by Xiaoxiang Morning Post, indictment withdrawals are not covered by the Criminal Procedure Law. Instead they are outlined in judicial interpretations and opinions issued by the SPP and Supreme People’s Court (SPC). After conducting a study on the use of the practice between 2003 and 2005, the SPP reported finding numerous problems, according to legal scholar Gao Tong. These problems included prosecutors opting to withdraw indictments in instances where they feared the defendant would be found not guilty and laxity in carrying out legal oversight. The SPP’s 2005 evaluation measures state that decisions not to pursue charges should occur in less than 0.8 percent of cases, four times the target for acquittals.

Indictment withdrawals are not uncommon in political cases. In Gansu, Chen Pingfu (陈平福) was placed under residential surveillance in June 2012 for writing dozens of blog posts about the social injustices he experienced as a laid-off teacher, petitioner, and street performer. Chen was formally arrested for inciting subversion in August, but following an outpouring of public support for his release, his indictment was withdrawn on December 14, 2012. Chen’s defense lawyer claimed that he never saw the prosecutors’ application for withdrawal and was not informed of the basis for withdrawing the indictment. In a separate case, the Beijing People’s Procuratorate decided not to pursue charges against Wang Gongquan (王功权) on January 21, 2015. The prominent businessman was a cofounder, along with Xu Zhiyong (许志永), of the New Citizens’ Movement, which advocates for education for migrant children and transparency in the assets of government officials. The withdrawal followed a televised confession Wang made in December 2013 and his release on bail in January 2014.


Prosecutors issue indictments, but it is the courts that hand down convictions. Because convictions are the primary basis upon which their promotions are decided, “prosecutors need to run daily to the courts to beg [judges] not to hand down acquittals,” according to a mid-ranking prosecutor cited in an article published in Contemporary Law Review by legal scholar Zhu Tonghui. Painting a picture of insufficient checks and balances within the judiciary, Zhu notes that judges tend to approve most indictment withdrawals in part because they are aware of the adverse impact acquittals have on prosecutors. Courts and procuratorates tend to work together to rule out the possibility of not-guilty verdicts, according to an article published in the Journal of Hubei Correspondence University in 2014.

Like prosecutors, judges see convictions as a means to career advancement, but they also see them as tools for maintaining stability. Judges worry that finding defendants not guilty causes an uptick in petitioning because victims’ family members may feel that the judiciary failed to deliver justice and punish the real culprits, the SPC Research Office wrote in 2014. Acquittals in appellate trials are equally undesirable because higher-level courts do not want the public to view lower-court verdicts as “wrongful,” said Yuan Yicheng. Gao Tong says that acquittals often spark fierce public sentiments, where judges are denounced as “corrupt” or “abusing power.”

Some legal experts believe that courts reconcile unfounded guilty verdicts by issuing light or suspended sentences or exempting defendants from criminal punishment. China Law Yearbook shows that the percentage of convicted persons who were exempt from criminal punishment remained relatively stable around 1.67 percent from 2003 through 2013, however, the number of people receiving suspended sentences increased annually, going from 18.47 percent in 2003 to 30.78 percent in 2013. Critics argue that a portion of these exemptions and suspensions represent people who should have been acquitted.

Defense lawyers

Within the Chinese criminal justice system, defendants have little support. In 2012, former All China Lawyers Association president Yu Ning publicly stated that defense lawyers participated in fewer than 30 percent of all criminal cases nationwide with participation as low as 12 percent in some provinces. Defense lawyers face political and professional retaliation for performing their duties, and are often barred from routine activities such as meeting with their clients and obtaining case documents from police, prosecutors, and judges. The challenges facing defense lawyers are widely documented.

Stability maintenance

The decision of guilt or innocence is beyond the courts when the PLC intervenes in cases deemed to have far-reaching consequences for social or political stability. In these “stability maintenance” interventions, the PLC encourages coordination between courts, procuratorates, and police. China Youth Daily reported on this type of intervention in January 2014. In this instance, the local PLC in Gushi County, Henan Province, issued a “red-head document” requesting that the county court convict Wu Yunqiang (吴运强) on the grounds that an acquittal would lead to “negative social consequences” and “render local land-administration regulations useless.” The county accused Wu of illegal land use in early 2009 after he sold his kindergarten in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province. Wu was convicted and given a suspended sentence in November 2011, but two years later the Xinyang Intermediate People’s Court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial due to insufficient evidence. The procuratorate then formally withdrew the indictment in December 2013. However, due in large part to PLC intervention, Wu was re-indicted. In October 2014 he was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal transfer of land-use rights despite the fact that the procuratorate reportedly failed to present new evidence to substantiate his guilt.

Policies to manipulate verdicts based upon their social and political outcome undermine judicial independence and justice itself. During a speech at the National Prosecutors’ College in August 2014, SPP Procurator-General Cao Jianming acknowledged the prevention of wrongful convictions as the biggest challenge for prosecutors and urged judicial officials to hold on to the presumption of innocence. Coordinated or not, as wrongful convictions continue to be exposed by Chinese news media, it is increasingly difficult to view China’s acquittal rate as simply good work.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Riding the Rails: Political Investigations by China’s Railway Police

Guangzhou Railway Police patrolling station, 2011. Image credit: gdwh.com.cn.

China’s railway police are tasked with preventing and handling criminal activity and maintaining safety and order in train stations and on trains. They also cooperate with state security to investigate and detain criminal suspects in political cases. Railroads move people, goods, and ideas, and over the past few decades the focus of political investigations among railway police has shifted from counterrevolution to religion to mass incidents. By reviewing official archives, Dui Hua has uncovered scores of political and religious cases handled by railway police, prosecutors, and courts from 1980 to present.


“The railway bureaus must not be overlooked as an important sub-battleground [in the fight] against hostile forces.” — Liaoning Province Railway Police Records

During the 1980s, railway police across the country worked closely with state security forces to “safeguard national security, socialism, and the smooth implementation of the Four Modernizations.” Six major areas of political investigation were: (1) espionage and other counterrevolutionary cases; (2) railroad sabotage; (3) stealing state secrets and espionage at bus and train stations; (4) people potentially manipulated by enemies and suspected of counterrevolution; (5) the enemy’s situation, prevention of counterrevolutionary sabotage, and strengthening investigative services; and (6) fighting the enemy at ports and borders. [*]  

The political cases most commonly documented by railway police were counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. Official records routinely state that counterrevolutionary propaganda stirs resentment against the people’s dictatorship and tarnishes China’s international image. Whether they criticized the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), local cadres, the abandonment of pre-reform socialism, agricultural taxes, the one-child policy, or simply presented personal grievances, “reactionary” slogans, letters, leaflets, and poems were deemed to have far-reaching, negative consequences. In train stations—high-traffic areas with thousands of idling people, propaganda has a huge potential audience.

Travelers were not the only potential recipients or disseminators of so-called counterrevolutionary rhetoric, and railway police worked to ensure that all railway employees were politically correct and loyal to the CCP. Of particular concern was Taiwanese infiltration of the railways, which were closely linked to economic development. Railway police used surveillance networks to ensure that railway employees were not affected by the “poisonous thoughts of psychological warfare,” i.e., Taiwanese propaganda in the form of radio broadcasts and “reactionary” materials making it across the strait in balloons and floating carriers. In 1983, one of six counterrevolution cases filed by railway police in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, involved a railway electrician who allegedly wrote in his notebook that he hoped Chiang Kai-shek would retake the mainland and kill a few communists. In a separate counterrevolutionary case the same year, a train station employee in Hebei’s Shanhai Pass allegedly spread rumors that “viciously attacked Deng Xiaoping.”

In the northeastern provinces, railway bureaus were more vigilant about secret agents from the Soviet Union than Taiwan. In the two years after China began research to counter Soviet espionage in 1979, Harbin railway police examined 41 suspects. Among them was Ma Wenzhong (马文忠) a Hui man originally from Gansu Province. Harbin Public Security Records state that Ma was paid by Soviet agents to collect political, military, and economic intelligence. He was detained in Mudanjiang Train Station and sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Harbin Railway Transport Intermediate People’s Court in December 1983.

1989 Protests

In 1989, one major responsibility undertaken by railway bureaus was to help contain the nationwide pro-democracy protests that first began in Beijing on April 15. On May 25, the State Council issued an emergency notice to the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Railways condemning the negative social impact and economic losses caused by students who “barged into train stations and forcefully took trains to Beijing.” All railway bureaus were urged to take concrete measures to prevent students from traveling to Beijing by train.

Railway police in Kunming, Yunnan Province, “dissuaded” 683 students from traveling north to Beijing and confiscated 558 copies of reactionary propaganda. In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, railway police tracked down a total 284 key suspects who joined the pro-democracy protests and two “ringleaders who created disturbances in Jilin Province and Nanjing” and confiscated 48 leaflets and eight notebooks with reactionary content. Elsewhere, railway police dispersed protesters laying down on tracks; removed barricades; and searched trains, guesthouses, and hotels along the railroads.

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on three individuals who were tried by railway courts for inciting demonstrators to block trains. In Shanghai, Gao Guihong (高贵鸿) and Wang Xia (王霞) were sentenced to five and four years in prison, respectively, for gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic or a public place. In Hunan, Huang Junjie (黄俊杰) was convicted of hooliganism but exempted from criminal punishment due to his advanced age by the Changsha Railway Transport Court in January 1991. Huang was 69 years old in 1989.


Despite a significant drop in the number of cases of counterrevolutionary sabotage, propaganda, and incitement, the 1990s saw a surge in “anti-socialist and anti-CCP” activities “disguised” as religious outreach. — Harbin Railway Public Security Records

On July 16, 1994, several church members staying at a guesthouse owned by the Harbin railway bureau were found to have gathered 1,000 members of New Testament Church to prepare for the “ascension to heaven.” In November 1995, the State Council labeled New Testament Church a cult. According to official records, the church aimed to “shatter the dysnomy of the Communist Party.”

Between 1995 and 1998, records from Xinjiang railway police reported crackdowns not only on “illegal mosques,” but also on Guanyin Famen; Bloody Holy Spirit; and house church gatherings in Urumqi, Turpan Korla City, and Yu’ergou Village. In 1999, Urumqi railway police intercepted 56 Falun Gong practitioners at train stations and confiscated 1,342 copies of Falun Gong propaganda and 980 copies of audio-video materials.

Cases involving secret political associations are occasionally mentioned in railway police records. In 1992, Yu Jie (于杰), an electrician at Jiamusi Train Station in Heilongjiang Province, was arrested for his involvement in the China Democracy Party. Yu joined people from Beijing and Liaoning Province in designing a new national flag and “conspiring to build an army to overthrow the CCP.” After reading Yu’s private letters, Harbin railway police concluded that Yu and others were in collusion with capitalism and “conspired” to seek help from the West.

In the south, surveillance of “reactionary” individuals and publications connected to Hong Kong continued even after the British returned the territory to China in July 1997. Guangdong railway police investigated Zhang Xuguang (张旭光), a cargo officer at Longchuan Train Station, after he accepted an invitation to meet with members of Tsung Tsin Association, a “pro-rightist” Hakka association based in Hong Kong, in September 1997. Between 1994 and 1999, the Huizhou Railway Public Security Department confiscated 1,637 copies of Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and East Week magazine, 89 copies of One Magazine, and more than 50 copies of banned political books.


Railway police often list the suppression of illegal religious activities among their top achievements. In 2010, railway police in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, tracked down 1,310 members of 48 cults and “a large number of underground religious groups” along the Xiangtang-Putian Railway. In 2012, railway police in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, confiscated more than 26,200 copies of “cult” propaganda. Some of the material discussed qigong and religious sects such as Almighty God, Zhonggong and the Amitabha Society.

Falun Gong is the religious group most frequently discussed in railway bureau records. In 2006 alone, Guangxi’s Liuzhou railway police investigated a total of 114 Falun Gong propaganda and incitement cases and confiscated 2,425 copies of illegal publications.

The PPDB has information on 18 Falun Gong practitioners who were convicted by railway courts and sentenced to up to six years’ imprisonment. At least a third of these individuals were railway bureau employees in Heilongjiang and Guangxi, while others were passengers in possession of Falun Gong publications while at train stations or traveling by train.

Amid a rising number of mass incidents nationwide, railway police constitute part of the stability-maintenance machine meant to curb potential unrest. In the wake of the deadly high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, Nanchang railway police detained Zhang Qijin (张琦金) and Lin Tao (林涛) for disseminating social media posts in an effort to organize a mass vigil outside Xiamen Train Station. The vigil aimed to further demands that authorities investigate the cause of the accident.

Xuzhou Railway Police check "important travelers" in 2011. Image credit: news.cnr.cn.

Internally, railway police add names to the list of “targeted people” who should be kept under close watch and identify railway bureau employees who might “illegally petition” or protest low wages, layoffs, or poor retirement benefits. In 2000, Zhengzhou railway police resolved 63 incidents of collective petitioning involving 1,282 railway bureau staff and their family members. In 2005, the number of these incidents and the people involved jumped more than six-fold to 419 and nearly threefold to 3,513, respectively. Fifty of the cases in 2005 were mass incidents, including those plotted but not carried out, involving “attacks on the railroad and obstruction of railway transit.”

In close collaboration with local governments and security contractors, railway police intercept tens of thousands of petitioners who are not railway employees, with most of them taken into custody during “sensitive” periods such as the two meetings (i.e., the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March) and June Fourth. In the four-year period from 2008 to 2011, Zhengzhou railway police prevented more than 3,000 petitioners from traveling to Beijing. Further south in Nanning, Guangxi Province, more than 3,300 petitioners were intercepted on their way to Beijing in the seven years between 2004 and 2010. In both places the highest number of annual interceptions was in 2009, which marked the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The most recent petitioning statistic Dui Hua uncovered was from 2012, when Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as general secretary during the 18th National People’s Congress. That year a disaggregated total of 7,799 individuals attempting to petition either provincial or central governments were intercepted or inspected by Zhengzhou railway police.

Interception of Petitioners En Route to Beijing by Local Railway Police
Zhengzhou, Henan Nanning, Guangxi
Year No. of petitions No. of petitioners No. of petitions No. of petitioners
2004 - - 38 632
2005 - - 43 414
2006 - - 54 296
2008 46 >380 105 507
2009 137 1,431 103 695
2010 55 579 60 379
2011 69 706 - -
Sources: Dui Hua, Zhengzhou Railway Bureau Yearbook, Nanning Railway Bureau Yearbook

Railway police require ethnic minorities to bear the brunt of more stringent security protocols due to ethnic unrest. In the wake of the Lhasa Riots in 2008, several locales in eastern coastal province of Zhejiang issued a passenger, freight, and delivery safety opinion requesting all transport units to thoroughly check the identity and belongings of each Tibetan, Uyghur, foreign national, and other suspicious persons. In the same year, Zhengzhou railway police singled out 5,422 Uyghur and 608 Tibetan passengers for examination.

While its focus has shifted over the past few decades in response to new challenges to the CCP’s grip on power, political investigation by railway police has continued to be an important part of stability maintenance. From its origins in fighting overseas forces, political work along the rails has come to tackle the homegrown protests and dissent of rights-conscious Chinese citizens.  

* These areas were identified by Luoyang Railway Public Security in Henan Province for the period from 1986 through 1990 and appear consistent with work carried out by railway police nationwide during that time. back to top ↑

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Surge in Foreign Prisoners in Beijing

Foreign prisoners marching in Shanghai Qingpu Prison. Image credit: Phoenix Weekly

The paucity of statistics on China’s prisoner population sometimes results in observers concluding that recent events represent new trends. For example, a recent spate of arrests and convictions of foreign nationals—e.g., Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt on suspicion of espionage, Briton Peter Humphrey and Chinese-American Yu Yinzheng for allegedly trafficking in private information, and naturalized American citizen Vincent Wu for allegedly running a criminal enterprise (China does not recognize Wu’s American citizenship)—has raised concerns that foreign firms and businesspeople operating in China are being treated more harshly. Official statistics uncovered by Dui Hua indicate that growth in China’s number of foreign prisoners may be an ongoing trend, but that historically, the most common reason for incarceration probably relates to a different business, trafficking in drugs.

Annual volumes of Beijing Prison Yearbook show that the number of foreign citizens (not including Taiwanese or Hong Kong and Macau “compatriots”) imprisoned in the capital nearly quintupled between 2006 and 2010, reaching 232 prisoners, or 1.8 percent of the prisoner population in China’s second largest city. The number of countries with citizens incarcerated in Beijing rose from 22 to 53. The number of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau residents incarcerated in Beijing rose 170 percent to 68 prisoners.

Breakdown of Foreign Nationals in Beijing Prisons by Nationality, 2006‒2010
Region Country 2006 2010 Region Country 2006 2010
Europe France 1 3 Latin America Brazil 3
Lithuania 1 Columbia 3 3
Portugal 1 Peru 1 4
Russia 1 1 Uruguay 1
Sweden 1 Africa Benin 1
UK 1 Cameroon 9
Middle East &
Central Asia
Afghanistan 2 Congo 2
Iran 1 8 Egypt 1
Kyrgyzstan 2 Gambia 1
South Asia Bangladesh 1 Ghana 1 9
Cambodia a Guinea 5
India 2 3 Guinea-Bissau 2
Indonesia 3 Ivory Coast 2
Malaysia 3 3 Kenya 4
Pakistan 2 24 Lesotho 1 1
Philippines 1 4 Liberia 1 3
Singapore 2 4 Mali 1
Sri Lanka 1 Malawi 2
Thailand 9 Morocco 1
Vietnam 1 Namibia 1
East Asia Japan 3 3 Nigeria 4 47
Mongolia 1 South Africa 2
N. Korea 1 Sierra Leone 1
S. Korea 13 7 Tanzania 5
Oceania Australia 5 Togo 1
Nauru 1 2 Uganda 11
N. America Canada 1 4 Zambia 1
US 3 5 Zimbabwe 10
Total 49 232

Growth in the number of foreign prisoners took place virtually across the board. The combined number of prisoners from North America, Europe, and Australia tripled. However, the biggest growth came from African and South Asian countries, specifically Nigeria and Pakistan. The number of African prisoners rose from just nine in 2006 to 121 in 2010 to account for more than half of Beijing’s foreign prisoners. Outside Beijing, Dongguan Prison is known to be holding a large number of African prisoners who reside in Guangdong Province, home to tens of thousands of African migrant workers, business people, and those seeking political asylum in Hong Kong.

The reasons for the sharp rise in foreign prisoners in Beijing likely vary by country. Drug trafficking is probably a primary reason for the uptick in Pakistani and Nigerian prisoners, if not for prisoners of other countries. According to a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), China arrested 1,559 drug traffickers from 50 different countries in 2009. The previous year foreign drug traffickers arrested in China were primarily from Burma, Pakistan, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Nigerians and Pakistanis accounted for an equal percentage of drug trade arrests in Pakistan from 2000 to 2008, and police in Kazakhstan frequently report the involvement of Nigerians in trafficking Afghan heroin to China from Kazakhstan, the UNODC report said.

Although official data does not break down foreign prisoners by crime, a prison inspector told Dui Hua that most foreign nationals are convicted of economic crimes, including smuggling common goods, and drug-related crimes. A smaller percentage is convicted of violent crimes, and very few are convicted of endangering state security crimes, making the espionage charges against the Garratt’s quite rare. American geologist Xue Feng (薛峰) is the only foreign national known to be presently serving a sentence for endangering state security in China. He was transferred to Beijing No. 2 Prison to serve his sentence in 2011.

Direct foreign investment in Beijing rose a relatively modest 40 percent over the five-year period from 2006 to 2010. The 2008 Summer Olympics took place during the period, but the numbers of tourists visiting the capital in August 2008, the month the games were held, were a disappointing 388,000, considerably less than the anticipated 500,000. The poor attendance was due to the global economic crisis, which also affected investment and trade, and to strict security and visa controls imposed on visitors to Beijing.

South Korea, Malawi, North Korea, and Sweden were the only countries for which official data showed a decline in prisoner numbers. The number of South Korean prisoners dropped from 13 in 2006 to seven in 2010. This may be due to requests for prison transfers. According to a report by The Global Times, South Korea originated 107 of the 198 requests for prisoner transfers (both within China and to foreign countries) that the Ministry of Justice had received by early 2012. Dui Hua research indicates that South Korean pastors and missionaries have been imprisoned in China for helping North Korean refugees enter South Korea, while those charged with proselytizing have been deported.

Of the 232 foreign citizens in Beijing prisons at the end of 2010, 184 were men and 48—a striking 21 percent—were women. (Women generally account for 2 to 10 percent of national prison populations.) Most men were incarcerated in Beijing No. 2 Prison where they accounted for nearly 15 percent of all prisoners. Women were incarcerated in Beijing Women’s Prison. As in most provinces and municipalities with large foreign prisoner populations (e.g., Shanghai and Guangdong Province), in these Beijing prisons, foreign nationals are housed in separate cell blocks. Foreign prisoners, like prisoners from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, generally do not mix with inmates from the mainland. Yancheng Prison, China’s only prison run by the Ministry of Justice and not by a provincial prison bureau, is located immediately across Beijing’s border in Hebei Province. It houses scores of foreign nationals, including several sentenced by Beijing courts.

Managing large numbers of foreigner prisoners poses challenges for the Beijing Prison Administration Bureau (PAB). In addition to granting prisoners regular monthly visits from their family members, countries with consular agreements with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are permitted regular access to their citizens, in many cases in the form of monthly visits. In 2010, the PAB arranged more than 3,000 visits to foreign prisoners by diplomats, embassy officials, and family members from more than 40 countries and translated over 300 letters. That year, Beijing prisons also received 145 overseas visitors on legal exchanges including members of judicial delegations from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. A delegation of American experts organized by Dui Hua visited Beijing’s only juvenile reformatory in May 2010.

In 2008 a report by the Ministry of Justice called language and healthcare the two biggest problems facing the management of incarcerated foreign nationals, The Global Times reported. These and other issues can cause tension, and disciplinarily actions are sometimes taken. A group of 10 foreign citizens who were deemed to “pose management problems” was dispersed from Beijing to prisons in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin in 2010.

Deaths of incarcerated foreign nationals, though rare, do occur. A Zimbabwean woman died of heart complications resulting from AIDS in 2010. The Zimbabwean Embassy was notified, and the woman was cremated.

Beijing statistics provide a glimpse of what may be a national upswing in the number of foreign nationals imprisoned in China. Nationwide, there are more than 6,000 foreign nationals serving sentences in Chinese prisons, The Global Times reported citing Guo Jian’an, director of the Ministry of Justice Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs. In order to ensure the health, rights, and dignity of these men and women, consular involvement and access as well as Chinese laws are necessary—China’s Prison Law does not mention foreign prisoners.

Prison transfers should also be considered. China has signed bilateral prisoner transfer agreements with 11 countries and has been approached by more than 20 other countries regarding such agreements, according to The Global Times report. Guo Jian’an said China is willing to work on a case-by-case basis to transfer prisoners and has transferred more than 40 foreign prisoners, or about 10 people per year.

Particularly where drug crime is the major driver of incarceration, root causes like drug use, addiction, and poverty must also be addressed both inside and outside China to help people lead free lives.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Zhonggong: The Subversive Business of Qigong

Qigong practitioners "receiving energy (qi)" from a qigong master. During the 1980s and 90s, gatherings like this were popular in China. Image credit: Netease News 

Qigong—involving mediation, breathing, and movement—is meant to heal, but according to Chinese authorities, it can also harm. The central government has banned 14 “harmful” qigong organizations not including the popularly known Falun Gong, which was outlawed as a “cult.”[1] Though distinctly branded, at least one lesser known qigong organization, Zhonggong, has experienced government suppression similar to that of Falun Gong.

China’s qigong craze lasted from around 1978 to 1999. Qigong was popularized by the Communist Party as “somatic science” under the banner of the “Four Modernizations,” which included national defense, agriculture, industry, and science and technology. During the 1980s, the homegrown healing practice instilled confidence in Chinese ingenuity at a time when the country was still reeling from decades of internal upheaval.

Zhonggong, also known as China Healthcare and Wisdom Enhancement Practice (中华养生智能功), was established by Zhang Hongbao (张宏堡) in 1987. Zhang gained popularity by publicly demonstrating his mystical healing powers, and at its peak, Zhonggong claimed to have 38 million members and 100,000 employees nationwide. Some scholars believe that, until about 1995, Zhonggong was more popular in China than Falun Gong.

However, with qigong popularity, came high-level opposition. In April 1999, state-run media ran an article entitled “I Don’t Support Youth Practicing Qigong,” calling Falun Gong “superstitious” and “harmful.” In response, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Zhongnanhai and demanded an apology. Unwilling to make concessions to a group that threatened party loyalty through mass mobilization, the central government outlawed Falun Gong as a cult in July 1999. Zhonggong was branded a harmful qigong organization later that year and banned for defying leaders; spreading superstition; and engaging in criminal acts such as pyramid schemes, rapes, and murders.

Shortly after the ban, Zhang Hongbao fled to Guam. China filed a request for his extradition, but the United States declined in accordance with the UN Convention Against Torture. Receiving protective resident status in 2001, Zhang faced a series of civil lawsuits and felony charges in the United States between 2003 and 2005. Some accusations, such as domestic violence, were related to his personal life, while others related to Zhonggong. By the time Zhang died in a car accident in July 2006, however, most of these cases had been withdrawn.

With the exception of Zhang Hongbao, individual Zhonggong leaders have garnered little international attention. They are generally not viewed as victims of religious or political persecution. This is due in part to the fact that Zhonggong has historically been more commercial than Falun Gong, making it seem at times more akin to a business marketed on its health benefits than a spiritual organization. (Zhonggong members are more or less required to purchase practice sessions and publications to increase their group rank.) It is also important to note that, perhaps influenced by religious persecution during the Mao period and the celebration of somatic science that continued into the 1990s, many qigong practitioners, including Zhonggong adherents, do not identify as religious followers. Still, the focus on qigong’s “extraordinary powers” has led some western scholars to recognize Zhonggong as part of the “new religious movement”—the emergence in China of a number of non-mainstream religious sects after reform and opening began in 1978.

While official Chinese media often claim that Zhonggong was banned to protect people from social harms (e.g., defiance, superstition, and criminal activity), the crackdown on the group, if not religious, is at least partly political. According to data in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database, Zhonggong leaders are more likely than Falun Gong leaders to be convicted of endangering state security (ESS) crimes. The database includes information on two dozen Zhonggong leaders detained or sentenced since 1999.

1999-2002: Early Suppression

Within the first two years of its banning, Zhonggong saw 600 leaders detained nationwide, according to overseas media reports. Nearly a dozen were sentenced for inciting subversion, an ESS offense. ESS charges stemmed from the distribution of two critical letters about Jiang Zemin, then Chinese president, to thousands of police stations. Written pseudonymously by two people who claimed to be police officers, the letters stated that Jiang’s crackdown on Zhonggong resembled Mao Zedong’s lawlessness during the “Three-Anti and Five-Anti Campaigns” and the Cultural Revolution. Police who received the letter were urged to defy Jiang’s order to arrest Zhonggong practitioners. As a result of the letter campaign, 11 Zhonggong leaders from Henan, Jiangsu, and Qinghai provinces were convicted of inciting subversion and sentenced to 1‒4 years in prison or reeducation through labor (RTL) between 2000 and 2001.

Perhaps due to the fact that they caused less of a stir, Zhonggong leaders received shorter sentences than Falun Gong leaders in the first years after they were banned. The lengthiest sentence Dui Hua has recorded for a Zhonggong leader during this period is seven years’ imprisonment, handed down to Zhou Xinyang (周新扬) for tax evasion in Hunan. Several other leaders in Hubei, Chongqing, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Zhejiang were sentenced to 1‒3 years in prison or RTL for disturbing social order or illegal medical practice. A number of Falun Gong leaders who participated in the Zhongnanhai protests were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on cult charges.

In Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China, sociologist David Palmer argues that unlike Falun Gong, Zhonggong declined swiftly in the face of repression because its leaders were primarily motivated by money. Public security records in Sichuan also suggest that many Zhonggong members stopped holding practice sessions immediately after 1999.

Some official records indicate, however, that Zhonggong’s influence remained. Dozens to hundreds of active practitioners continued to be found in counties in Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang. Local governments launched a series of crackdowns on Zhonggong revivals known as the “first reorganization.” For example, in 2000, Sun Haixin (孙海欣) and Hu Wanping (胡皖平) were detained in Anhui for possessing more than 100 tons of Zhonggong books and audiovisual materials and “illegally raised funds” exceeding 4.7 million yuan. In 2002, Hu Suyan (胡素艳) and Ji Sujuan (纪淑娟) were said to have sold dozens of Zhonggong publications and antiseptic products in Gaocheng City, Anhui. Official sources do not mention whether these individuals were convicted of any crimes.

Sentenced Zhonggong Leaders by Crime, 1999‒2001
Name Location Sentence Facility
Inciting Subversion
Huang Wanping 黄万平 Jiangsu 4 years Prison
Qin Zhaoyang 秦朝阳 Jiangsu 3 years Prison
Zhai Xuehai 翟学海 Jiangsu 3 years Prison
Dong Jielan 董佳兰 Jiangsu 2 years Prison
Ju De 居德 Henan 2.5 years Prison
Ye Yaonian 叶耀年 Henan 2.5 years Prison
Rui Guojie 芮国杰 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Zhao Zegen 赵泽根 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Yang Weihu 杨卫虎 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Xiang Renbo 项仁波 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Chai Jinchun 柴景春 Qinghai 1 year RTL
Disturbing Social Order
Cheng Yaqin 程亚琴 Hebei 2 years RTL
Xi Dafang 席大芳 Guangxi 1 year RTL
Illegal Medical Practice
Chen Jinlong 陈金龙 Zhejiang 2 years Prison
Tax Evasion
Zhou Xinyang 周新扬 Hunan 7 years Prison
Li Xiaoning 李晓宁 Chongqing 3 years Prison
Wang Xuemei 王雪梅 Guangdong 2 years Prison
Yan Xiehe 严协和 Guangxi 3 years Prison

Mid-2000s: “Second Activation”

Zhonggong Founder Zhang Hongbao. Source: rbw.org.cn

Around the mid-2000s, the term “second activation” began to appear in government sources to describe Zhonggong’s second revival, and local government records began labelling Zhonggong activities as “anti-China.” This development followed an increase in Zhang Hongbao’s political activism overseas. After taking up residence in the United States, Zhang claimed to have raised $2.7 million for China’s democracy movement. In 2003, he founded Zhonggong’s US headquarters and declared himself president of “China Shadow Government,” an opposition group in exile which advocated for political reform.

Official yearbooks condemned activities involved in the second activation. In 2005, 20 “reactionary” slogans—“Let’s unite, reclaim our Zhonggong bases, and learn from the Falun Gong spirit”—were discovered in Baoji, Shaanxi. In 2006, Zhonggong leaders reportedly aligned with overseas hostile forces to establish an underground opposition party in Wushan County, Chongqing. That same year, four months after his death, Zhang was labeled by Tianjin’s Anti-cult Association—a non-profit, voluntary group whose members often have government backgrounds—as a traitor who used funding from hostile western forces to divide China.

During this period, Zhonggong leaders faced harsher punishments than those reported from 1999 to 2001. Li Zhanling (李占领) was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in 2004. According to his defense lawyers, Li was appointed a leader during Zhonggong’s first and second reorganizations. He was in charge of organizing practice sessions and training leaders in Cangzhou, Hebei Province.

In a separate case, an online verdict indicated that seven leaders detained in 2006 in Donggang City, Liaoning, were sentenced to 6‒15 years’ imprisonment in September 2008. Although Zhonggong is not officially classified as a cult, it is often targeted in anti-cult propaganda, and one of the defendants in the Donggang case, Gong Shaohong (宫绍洪), was convicted on cult charges. (The other six leaders in this case were sentenced for illegal business activities.)

Prosecutors accused Gong of compiling and editing three banned books that “rejected atheism,” widely cited Zhang Hongbao’s theories, and “spread apocalyptical rumors.” Over 6,000 copies of these books were sold as teaching materials in 10 provinces, and the sales of all publications (including but not limited to the book) generated revenues exceeding 7 million yuan. Confessing to tax evasion and illegal business activity, Gong insisted that he was not involved in any cult activity. Nonetheless, he was convicted on all three charges and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, the longest known sentence for a Zhonggong leader.

After their release in 2011, some individuals involved in the Donggang case published online posts claiming that they were victims of forced confession. They said the charges were fabricated by a state security officer who confiscated and embezzled their book sale revenues. While admitting to practicing Zhonggong in the past, they claimed to have relinquished it soon after the national ban. They also stated in Gong Shaohong’s defense that his books aimed to cultivate love for the party and the nation.

Sentenced Zhonggong Leaders by Crime, 2004‒2008
Name Prison Sentence Release Date
Inciting Subversion
Li Zhanling 李占领 10 years 2014
Organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law
Gong Shaohong 宫绍洪 † 15 years Apr 5, 2021
Illegal business activity
Wang Shujuan 王淑娟 6 years Nov 30, 2011
Yu Yongxiang 于永香 6 years Nov 30, 2011
Yu Yongfang 于永芳 ‡ 8 years Nov 25, 2014
Xi Yong 刁勇 5 years Nov 25, 2011
Gong Shaoying 宫绍英 5 years Nov 25, 2011
Guo Zhenfeng 郭振凤 Suspended --
† Gong Shaohong was also convicted of illegal business activity and tax evasion.
‡ Yu Yongfang was also convicted of tax evasion.

Post-2006: Lingering Influence

Internal frictions arising from Zhang Hongbao’s death in 2006 are believed to have further weakened Zhonggong’s influence in China, but Zhonggong groups continue to operate. Local government records still mention crackdowns on Zhonggong alongside suppression of Falun Gong and banned Christian groups such as Almighty God.

For example, in May 2010, two Zhonggong leaders from Hebei and Sichuan provinces were given admonitions for inviting nearly 500 practitioners from more than 10 provinces to join a secret gathering to celebrate the birthday of another Zhonggong master. A sentence for attempting “to illegally amass vast fortunes” was handed down to the man whose birthday was to be celebrated at a Buddhist temple in Wuxue City, Hubei.

In January 2011, Ningxia’s government website expounded upon the “reactionary” nature of Zhonggong. It proclaimed that Zhonggong founder Zhang Hongbao had a hidden agenda to turn qigong classes into another Whampoa Military Academy. (The academy produced a number of prominent mainland Chinese revolutionary leaders from its founding in 1924 until it was relocated to Taiwan in 1950.) The article also stated that Zhang urged his followers to be independent of the party’s control and to listen to Zhonggong’s US headquarters. It said some members deemed Zhonggong’s ideology as the only cure to widespread corruption in China. In 2012, multiple townships in Hebei, Hunan, Shanxi, and Sichuan provinces released anti-Zhonggong directives on their government websites.

The most recently published Zhonggong case involved ESS charges. In 2013, the Hubei High People’s Court sentenced a Zhonggong leader surnamed Wang to three years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion. The court found that Wang had organized two Zhonggong training courses for nearly 40 practitioners in Zhangjiajie and Xiangtan, Hunan. Participants paid 1,200 yuan for each of the courses during which Wang made “slanderous” remarks about the party. (He described it as a “demon” and a corrupt regime that murdered many people during the Cultural Revolution). Witnesses confirmed that Wang gave lectures on how the party persecuted Zhonggong and Zhang Hongbao. In addition to circulating the Nine Commentaries, a banned Falun Gong publication, Wang was also said to have distributed Charter 08, the political manifesto that largely led to the imprisonment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), and materials about June Fourth. At his home, Wang was found to have saved 21 copies of Falun Gong documents on multiple electronic devices.

Zhonggong is officially “harmful,” but the grounds for its stigmatization are not entirely clear. Is the group too religious or superstitious? Is it violent or fraudulent? Or is it merely defiant? Official media have set the tone by reporting on sensational Zhonggong cases and individuals but could it be, as public records show, that the problem with Zhonggong is not that it is harmful, but that it is political?  

[1] The Chinese names of the “14 harmful qigong groups” are: 1. 中华养生益智功(简称中功)2. 香功 3. 菩提功 4.元极功 5. 华藏功 6. 中华昆仑女神功 7. 人宇特能功 8. 三三九乘元功 9. 日月气功 10. 万法归一功 11. 慈悲功 12. 沈昌人体科技 13. 一通健康法 14. 中国自然特异功。(Source: Meishan Daily)     top

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Identifying Cult Organizations in China

After a killing by alleged "cult" members, Xinhua published an article on the "truth" about cults in China. Image credit: xinhuanet.com

Chinese media scrambled to identify “cult” organizations after a woman was reportedly beaten to death by six members of Almighty God at a McDonald’s restaurant in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, on May 28, 2014. Almighty God (also called Real God Church or Eastern Lightning) was outlawed as a cult in November 1995 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and State Council. As recently as December 2012, the group made headlines when hundreds of members were detained for spreading rumors of apocalypse.

Back in 1995, the Central Committee, State Council, and Ministry of Public Security identified at least 13 groups as cult organizations. Eleven of them were Christian and two were Buddhist. After the McDonald’s killing earlier this year, at least three “cult” lists began circulating online. The longest list names 20 organizations and was compiled by the China Anti-Cult Association (CACA), whose website calls the group a volunteer-run humanitarian nonprofit. The CACA says the list was drawn up by experts in technology, law, and religion.

Major Cult Organizations Identified by CACA

Name Category Founder Year & Place Founded Scale & Influence
Falun Gong
Qigong Li Hongzhi
1992 Jilin Believed to be the largest “cult” identified by the CACA, particularly active in Shandong and northeastern China.
Almighty God
Christian (Shouters offshoot) Zhao Weishan
1989 Henan Estimated to have millions of followers nationwide.
Christian Li Changshou
1962 US Introduced to China in 1979, by 1983 it had up to 200,000 followers across 360 counties and cities in 20 provinces and autonomous regions.
Society of Disciples
Christian Ji Sanbao
1989 Yao County, Shaanxi More than 350,000 followers across over 300 counties in 14 provinces as of 1995.
Unification Church
Christian Mun Son-myong
1954 South Korea Believed to be active among ethnic Koreans in northeast China.
Guanyin Famen
Buddhist Shi Qinghai
1988 Taiwan Introduced to mainland China in 1992, it had 500,000 followers across over 20 provinces at its peak.
Bloody Holy Spirit
Christian (New Testament Church offshoot) Zuo Kun
1988 Taiwan Introduced to China in 1987, it has been active in 20 provinces and municipalities.
Full Scope Church
Christian Xu Yongze
1984 Pingdingshan, Henan Tens of thousands of followers across over 88 counties in 15 provinces and autonomous regions as of 1991.
Three Kinds of Servants Sect
Christian Xu Wenku
1986 Henan Claimed to have a million members, most in Anhui, Sichuan, and northeast provinces.
True Buddha School
Buddhist Lu Shengyan
1979 US Introduced to China in 1988, it was once active in 13 provinces and municipalities
Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station
Christian (Shouters offshoot) Wang Yongmin
1994 Anhui Over a thousand followers in Anhui, Jiangsu, and Henan as of April 1995.
Source: CACA, Dui Hua. Note: The other nine groups identified as cults by CACA are: Spirit Sect (灵灵教), South China Church (华南教会), Established King (被立王), Lord God Sect (主神教) (as recently as 2012 three women in Guangxi were sent to prison for their involvement with this group), World Elijah Evangelic Mission (世界以利亚福音宣教会), Yuandun Famen (圆顿法门), New Testament Church (新约教会), Dami Mission (达米宣教会), and Children of God (天父的儿女).

Under Article 300 of the Criminal Law, individuals who participate in cult organizations may be charged with “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law” and face prison sentences of 3-7 years. According to a joint interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1999, cult crimes can be applied when one “resists group bans by relevant departments, resumes banned groups, establishes other sects, or continues [illegal] activities.”

Falun Gong

Falun Gong is perhaps the one group identified by Chinese authorities as a cult that is most well-known inside and outside China. It is also the first group on the CACA list. Falun Gong practitioners faced severe persecution in the decade after the qigong group was outlawed by the central government in 1999. But in recent years, police and courts have generally imposed fewer arrests and less severe punishments. According to Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB), the number of Falun Gong prisoners known or believed to be in custody has nearly halved since 2009 (see table below).

Documented Falun Gong Prisoners
Year No.
2009 4,139
2010 3,845
2011 3,121
2012 2,675
2013 2,369
2014 2,201
Source: Dui Hua. All figures are as of December 31 except 2014 which is as of June 30.

Falun Gong is perhaps the one group identified by Chinese authorities as a cult that is most well-known inside and outside China. It is also the first group on the CACA list. Falun Gong practitioners faced severe persecution in the decade after the qigong group was outlawed by the central government in 1999. But in recent years, police and courts have generally imposed fewer arrests and less severe punishments. According to Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB), the number of Falun Gong prisoners known or believed to be in custody has nearly halved since 2009 (see table below).

Almighty God

As mentioned previously, there was a spike in arrests of Almighty God adherents in December 2012. According to Legal Evening News, more than 1,300 people across 16 provinces had been detained for propagating rumors of impending apocalypse during that month. The majority (800) of the people detained were apprehended in Qinghai and Guizhou. A Xinhua news report from June 2014 says that Ningxia police had detained more than 1,000 members of Almighty God since 2012 and that Liaoning police had arrested 113 leading members since 2013.

Official sources say that there are millions of Almighty God members nationwide and characterize most members as under-educated rural women around age 50. With the exception of Henan Province, which publicizes most of its court verdicts online, most jurisdictions do not report the names of people detained in Almighty God cases. That said, according to Southern Weekly, of the 161 Almighty God verdicts published online nationwide, 109 were in Henan and 134 involved violations of Article 300. Among the 134 Article 300 cases, which involved 335 defendants, the lengthiest sentence was eight years’ imprisonment, handed down to only one defendant. Most defendants were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment or above, and one third of defendants received suspended sentences. Defense lawyers participated in only one third of these 134 criminal cases.

Shouters, Society of Disciples, and Spirit Sect

The Shouters lost much of its popularity when it splintered into several groups including Almighty God. Both it and the Society of Disciples reported having hundreds of thousands of followers in the 1980s or early 1990s. Before Article 300 made it into the Criminal Law in 1997, many leaders of the Shouters and Society of Disciples were convicted of “organizing/using a sect or feudal superstition to carry out counterrevolutionary activities,” indicating a political bent to their persecution.

Unlike the groups mentioned above, Spirit Sect is not prominently featured on the CACA list. However, Dui Hua has discovered Spirit Sect verdicts on Chinese court websites that are more recent than those of the Shouters and Society of Disciples. The PPDB has information on 25 Spirit Sect members sentenced for cult activities since 2013, compared to only eight members of the Shouters and Society of Disciples combined. (This may indicate that the Spirit Sect is more active or visible or that there is a difference in public reporting regarding these groups due to divergent local practices or otherwise.)

Common among verdicts for all three groups is that the vast majority of defendants are sentenced to three years’ imprisonment or lesser punishments and that Article 300 is not always applied. A number of defendants are sentenced to administrative punishments or are released after receiving “education.”

Breakdown of Sentences in PPDB, since 2013

Sentence Group
Shouters Society of Disciples Spirit Sect
Suspended 1
2 years 3
2.5 years 14
3 years 3 14
3.5 years 1 2
4 years 1 1
5+ years 1 1
Unknonwn 1
Source: Dui Hua

Other Christian Sects

Cases involving other Christian sects are much less reported in official media sources today. Throughout the 2000s, Full Scope Church, Three Kinds of Servants Sect, and Bloody Holy Spirit were identified in government records as police targets, but the PPDB contains no sentencing information on members of any of these groups since 2010.

Information about Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station is even scarcer. Dui Hua research indicates that the sect remained active in Anhui at least until 2002—seven years after it was outlawed by the Central Committee and State Council. In 2002, two of the group’s leaders Teng Binglian (腾丙连) and Wang Qishu (王启书) were detained for investigation, but the outcome of their case is unknown.

Originating in South Korea, Unification Church is believed to have some influence among ethnic Koreans in northeast China, but as of this writing, no one in China is known to have been convicted for joining this sect. Unification Church is often characterized in official narratives as a source of foreign infiltration largely because its overseas connections are at odds with the “three selfs” principles of China’s officially sanctioned religion: self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. (Read Uncovering China’s Korean Christians for more information about Korean Christian groups in China.)

Buddhist Sects

Guanyin Famen (GYFM) and True Buddha School are highly commercialized Buddhist groups marketed on healthy practices like vegetarianism and meditation. Although both are frequently listed in local records as inspection targets, no one affiliated with True Buddha School is known to have received prison sentences as of this writing.

GYFM appears to be more suppressed. The PPDB has information on over two dozen GYFM members detained mostly between 1996 and 2005. The most recent conviction reported in Chinese media was in 2012. Two members from Jilin were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for purchasing 2,600 copies of “cult” books. (Read The Cult of Buddha for more information about Buddhist sects.)

More than 20?

The CACA only lists 20 cult organizations nationwide, but Dui Hua has discovered official documents in which local public security offices refer to other groups as cults. Chinese authorities may deem the size and reach of these organizations to be too small to warrant calling them out on the national level. But it is also the case that some local authorities apply different metrics to determine whether groups meet the criteria of a cult: “deifying leaders, deceiving people, and spreading superstitions and heretical beliefs.”

For example, Kindness Sect (恩惠教) was declared a heretical organization in Urumqi in November 1999, but Dui Hua has not found information about the group’s activities in other locations. Active for two years in rural Xinjiang since its founding in 1997, the sect was led by former assistant village head Pan Wei (潘卫). Official sources say that Pan became fervently involved in illegal religious activities after meeting a Korean American missionary in China. From 1997‒1999, Pan and the missionary attended underground meetings in Harbin and organized 30 house-church gatherings throughout Xinjiang. No information on criminal punishments related to the sect has been discovered.

In January 1997 the Henan Public Security Bureau banned China Gospel Fellowship (中华福音团契). Headquartered in Tanghe County, the group allegedly spread ideas that its followers could cure illnesses without medicine and that non-members would go to hell. In 2005 over 80 members were detained in Chengcheng County, Shaanxi. Most were released after receiving “education.” Dui Hua has learned of just one conviction of a China Gospel Fellowship member, but it was a suspended sentence, handed down to He Guangming (何光明) by the Henan’s Xiayi County People’s Court in 2002.

Since 2011, local governments in several provinces including Guizhou, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang have explicitly stated that Amitabha Society (静空学会) is a cult. Despite winning multiple honorary awards overseas, founder Chin Kung (净空), a naturalized Australian citizen born in Anhui in 1927, stands accused by local governments of “deifying” himself through cultural exchanges, trainings, and publications. Expanding into more than 30 provinces since it was introduced to China in the 1990s, Amitabha was initially well-received among religious officials. In February 1998, academic journal Jianghuai Cultural History lauded Chin Kung as a benevolent philanthropist and patriot who supported “the peaceful unification of the motherland.” Today, official sources often accuse Chin Kung of overseas religious infiltration.

Although Amitabha is frequently mentioned in official records of campaigns against cults and foreign or religious infiltration, none of the individual cases Dui Hua has found have resulted in convictions of cult crimes. Most cases result in property confiscations rather than severe criminal punishments. The only individual known to have been imprisoned in connection with Amitabha is Lin Lidong (林立东), who was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal business activity” around 2005. Official sources say Lin produced a large number of Chin Kung audio materials and “colluded with Amitabha overseas.”

There appears to be consensus on the existence of 20 cults in China, but the number of groups that are being targeted in anti-cult campaigns is greater in number and varies from place to place. Although it was a violent incident that sparked the recent uptick in Chinese media reports on cult organizations, Dui Hua research indicates that violence is only rarely involved in cases involving these organizations.