Thursday, March 7, 2013

Transparency in Xinjiang: Reporting on State Security Trials

Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian speaks with the press during the 11th National People's Congress in March 2012. Photo credit:

On January 21, 2013, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region High People’s Court published its annual work report online, and, with a level of transparency not afforded by other jurisdictions, disclosed the number of endangering state security (ESS) trials in 2012. As is generally the norm, the first section of the report that covers the entire region discusses criminal cases and maintaining state security and social stability. The section states that 314 ESS trials of first and second instance were concluded in Xinjiang during the year. Compared with data in previous reports, the 2012 figure is a decline of 24 percent year-on-year and the second-lowest level in five years—the number of ESS trials peaked in 2009, corresponding with the July 2009 riots in Urumqi (Table 1). 

The decline is no cause for celebration, however, since, according to Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian, “the struggle between splittist and anti-splittist forces in Xinjiang [is] long-term, complicated, and intense” and “the insistence on stability maintenance as our first responsibility must not be relaxed.”[*] Splittism and inciting splittism are ESS crimes covered by Article 103 of the Criminal Law. Splittism is defined in the law as “organizing, plotting, or carrying out the splitting of the nation or damaging national unity.”

To put Xinjiang data in the context of national estimates of ESS trials, which are limited to trials of first instance, first and second instance trials need to be disaggregated. Xinjiang Yearbook provides data on first-instance trials for 1997‒2003 and 2008‒2010 (Table 1) and shows that, in recent years, first-instance ESS trials accounted for an average of 85.9 percent of combined first- and second-instance trials. This percentage is consistent with that of criminal trials in Xinjiang but higher than that of criminal trials nationwide. For example, in 2010 and 2011, second-instance trials accounted for about 16 percent of criminal trials in Xinjiang but only about 11 percent of those in the nation as a whole.

Accordingly, Dui Hua estimates that between 2008 and 2010, Xinjiang, which accounts for less than 2 percent of China’s population, accounted for 50 percent of first-instance ESS trials nationwide (Table 1). Given that splittism is the focus of stability maintenance, the great majority of defendants in these trials are almost certain to be Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group that accounts for 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population. More than 90 percent of Xinjiang ESS cases recorded in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) is of Ugyhurs convicted of splittism or inciting splittism for asserting their cultural identity through speech, association, and assembly. In fact, of the more than 800 people charged with splittism or inciting splittism in the PPDB, over 80 percent are Tibetans and more than 15 percent are Uyghurs. Dui Hua is aware of three Han Chinese who have been charged with inciting splittism, but all three were ultimately convicted of other crimes.

Table 1: ESS/CR* Trials Concluded in Xinjiang, Nationwide, 1997‒2012 
First- and
Year Xinjiang Nationwide† Xinjiang
No. of Trials No. of Trials No. of Trials % of National
1997 - 271 83 30.63
1998 - 208 109 52.40
1999 - 220 138 62.73
2000 - 324 192 59.26
2001 - 305 205 67.21
2002 - 366 77 21.04
2003 - 328 183 55.79
2004 - 336 -
2005 - 299 -
2006 - 310 -
2007 - 306 -
2008 268 466 235 50.43
2009 437 698 378 54.15
2010 376 670 314 46.87
2011 414 1314§ 356‡ 27.09
2012 314 ** 270‡
Source: Dui Hua, Xinjiang Courts Annual Work Report, Xinjiang Yearbook, China Law Yearbook
* Counterrevolution (CR) was a category of crimes in China’s Criminal Law until 1997. In that year, the ESS category entered the Criminal Law and encompassed most of the crimes previously list under CR.
"-" indicates data unavailable
† China Law Yearbook disaggregates first-instance trial data by crime category, listing eight of the 10 categories enumerated in the Criminal Law (Part 2, chapters 1‒10) along with a category referred to as “other.” Dui Hua believes that the unlisted categories of ESS and dereliction of military duty are combined under “other.” Since indictment statistics have indicated that dereliction of military duty generally accounts for less than 1 percent of indictments when placed in a separate category with only ESS, we believe that military dereliction trials account for a similarly low percentage of trials when combined with ESS and thus use “other” trials as a proxy for ESS trials.
‡ Dui Hua estimate based on the assumption that 85.9 percent of combined first- and second-instance trials are trials of first instance. First-instance trials accounted for 87.7 percent of combined first- and second-instance trials in 2008, 86.5 percent in 2009, and 83.5 percent in 2010.
§ Given the discrepancy between this number and historical data, we do not include 2011 figures in our analysis.
** Data expected to be released later this year.

Many Defendants per Trial

In 2012, there was a decline in ESS trials in Xinjiang, but in light of Zhang’s comments, it is unlikely that there was a change in the political climate and, depending on the number of defendants per trial, there may not have been an equivalent decline in the number of people tried. Xinjiang has not reported the number of defendants in ESS trials since 2003, but between 1996 and 2003, there was an average of 2‒4 defendants per trial (Table 2) and more recent data suggests that current figures may be higher. In 2009, Kashgar, which accounted for more than 60 percent of Xinjiang’s most serious ESS cases between 2001 and 2009, heard 49 ESS trials involving 225 defendants, with 33 of the trials involving 171 defendants allegedly linked to Islamic separatist organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. In restive Hotan, where Uyghurs make up more than 90 percent of the population, 8 first-instance trials involved a total of 39 defendants in 2011. If each of Xinjiang’s ESS trials involves 2‒5 defendants, the 270 trials estimated for 2012 included between 540 and 1,350 defendants in total.

Table 2: Xinjiang ESS/CR* Trials and Defendants, 1996‒2003 
Year First-Instance,
Concluded Trials
Defendants Defendants per Trial
1996 40 85 2.13
1997 83 227 2.73
1998 109 473 4.34
1999 138 367 2.66
2000 192 514 2.68
2001 205 751 3.66
2002 77 248 3.22
2003 183 655 3.58
Source: Dui Hua, Xinjiang Yearbook
Note: * Counterrevolution (CR) was a category of crimes in China’s Criminal Law until 1997. In that year, the ESS category entered the Criminal Law and encompassed most of the crimes previously list under CR.

Of the hundreds of people tried for ESS in Xinjiang in 2012, information has been made public about only two—both are Uyghurs sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment by the Kashgar Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court. Sidik Kurban (斯迪克库尔班) is a Muslim leader who oversaw religious homeschools throughout Xinjiang. He was convicted of inciting splittism and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with 5 years’ deprivation of political rights, according to Radio Free Asia. Abdirahman Yimer (阿布都热合曼依米尔) allegedly disseminated separatist ideas via removable storage devices and CD-ROM. He was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment with 5 years’ deprivation of political rights, according to Xinjiang Daily.

In Xinjiang, harsh sentences are routine. In 2009, the conclusion of 437 ESS cases resulted in 255 people sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment, life imprisonment, or death. The respective maximum sentences for inciting splittism and splittism are fixed-term imprisonment of more than five years and death.

Looking Beyond Xinjiang

Xinjiang is unique in its willingness to routinely publish ESS trial statistics online, but a handful of other provincial-level jurisdictions publish these figures in annual yearbooks. Dui Hua’s survey of available material shows that most reporting jurisdictions only have a few ESS trials per year (Table 3). Figures may be higher in Guangdong, which heard 14 ESS trials (including first and second instance) in 2008, according to a Xinhua report.

Table 3: First-Instance ESS Cases Filed by Location, 1999‒2011 
Year 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
- - - - - - - - - 2 3 3 1
- - 3 1 2 2 3 3 1 1 0 2 2
4 5 3 2 2 4 3 4 1 2 3 - -
4 5 5 0 1 0 2 1 1 - 1 4 1
Source: Dui Hua, Hebei Legal Yearbook, Chongqing Statistical Yearbook, Guizhou Statistical Yearbook, Henan Statistical Yearbook
Note: "-" indicates data unavailable

Given splittism data in the PPDB, the number of ESS trials is also likely to be higher in areas with large Tibetan populations, including Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan. However, Tibetan regions rarely disclose data on ESS arrests and trials, and last year, Sichuan news media reported that only 11 ESS cases were concluded in the province in 2011, despite the high frequency of self-immolation incidents, which have been characterized as “splittist” acts. That said, recent guidelines for handling self-immolation cases show that authorities are not necessarily using ESS charges to counter the protests.

What about 2011?

Based on our existing model, the percentage of nationwide ESS trials held in Xinjiang dropped to 27 percent in 2011. While the number of ESS trials in Xinjiang grew modestly, national figures soared to over 1,300 trials, compared with 408-trial average for the previous decade. The spike underscores the huge deficit of public information in the vast majority of jurisdictions and raises more questions than answers. It may indicate that Tibetan self-immolations and calls for “Jasmine Revolution” in China precipitated unprecedented numbers of ESS trials, but it may also indicate that there has been a change in official accounting to include more types of trials in the category that Dui Hua has attributed to ESS since 1998. Until more jurisdictions follow Xinjiang’s model of transparency, we cannot know for sure.

* “必须认识到新疆分裂和反分裂的斗争是长期的、复杂的、尖锐的……坚持维护稳定第一责任不放松”