31 May 2009

Counting Chinese Executions Isn't Easy

Last week, Amnesty International's latest report on the state of human rights throughout the world included new figures for the use of capital punishment in China. As the headline in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post alarmingly put it on Friday (subscription required for full article): "Mainland executions up 260 [percent], report says." Clear evidence of a worsening human rights situation in China? Not really.

What Amnesty's report says is this:
Amnesty International estimates a minimum of 7,000 death sentences were handed down and 1,700 executions took place. However, the authorities refused to make public national statistics on death sentences and executions and the real figure is undoubtedly higher.
Unfortunately, it doesn't offer much context for those three claims, leaving a lot of room for misunderstanding. (For example, what is "the real figure is undoubtedly higher" referring to in the final sentence, the number of death sentences or the number of executions?)

My understanding of what Amnesty does here is catalog all reports of executions that are published in the Chinese press. This is a fraction of the actual total, a closely-guarded figure treated as a "state secret" and unknown to all but a select group of people inside China. In 2007, Amnesty recorded 470 executions but acknowledged clearly that "this number is based on public reports available and serves as an absolute minimum."

A more accurate headline in the SCMP would have been "260 percent increase in the number of executions found by Amnesty in published Chinese reports." When you're dealing with a known portion of an unknown quantity, you simply cannot draw conclusions about the whole based on the part without much more analysis of the relationship between the two.

The fact that Amnesty counted more executions in 2008 compared to 2007 could mean that more executions were carried out. Or it could mean that the Chinese press was given more leeway to report on executions in 2008. Or it could mean that Amnesty had a more attentive team of researchers in 2008. It could even be a combination of all three. What it doesn't mean is that there was a 260 percent increase in the total number of executions in China.

In its report for 2007, Amnesty cites the Dui Hua Foundation's estimate of around 6,000 executions that year—a significant decrease from previous years due to the return of final review over all capital cases to the Supreme People's Court earlier that year. My personal view is that total executions in China probably remained basically flat or decreased slightly in 2008, but even if there was an increase, it would likely only be on the order of 5–10 percent.

We're all grasping at straws and trying to interpret dim shadows thanks to an intentionally opaque system that hides the extent to which capital punishment is used in China. Amnesty's annual recording of executions in the public record provides important data that is really some of the best that's available, but we should all be clear about the serious limits to what it can tell us. The SCMP clearly didn't comprehend that and jumped to unsupportable conclusions in pursuit of an eye-grabbing headline, though Amnesty probably could have done a better job at explaining its own thinking behind this estimate, too.

27 May 2009

Medical parole? What's it worth to you?


Earlier today Zeng Jinyan, wife of imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia, reported that prison officials have rejected the family's most recent petition to seek medical parole for Hu, who suffers from hepatitis B and serious liver damage.

Zeng reports that an official told her: "Regardless of how serious his illness is, without major political environment, he has no chance of medical parole."

I'm not exactly sure what Zeng (or, rather, the unnamed official) means by "political environment" means here, but my interpretation is that officials at Beijing Municipality Prison won't release Hu early without getting orders from above to do so and that such orders would likely only be issued if China's top leadership considered it politically expedient to do so.

Or, reading between the lines: "Perhaps Hu Jia's serious medical condition would qualify him for medical parole if he weren't Hu Jia the renowned activist, but since Hu is so important to the international community, we are going to hold on to him as long as we can to see what we can get for him in return."

This mentality—which critics deride as "hostage diplomacy"—was a regular feature of the Jiang Zemin era, with splashy releases of political prisoners on the eve of state visits by world leaders like President Clinton. But it has been conspicuously missing under Hu Jintao's leadership. Hu has been reported to find the practice personally distasteful, but there are probably larger factors at work as well. These days, Beijing can offer foreign leaders much more than the release of a few political prisoners, especially in light of the global financial crisis. Another possible explanation would be that the current leadership has concerns that releasing prisoners might be read as a sign of weakness, particularly by the more conservative wing within the Communist Party. Certainly, a gene for political risk-taking appears to be absent from the current leadership's genetic make-up.

But, having said that, one cannot simply assume that a deal of some sort is totally out of the question. I'm guesing that the person who spoke to Zeng Jinyan is not in a position to know Hu Jintao's mind on the subject and was speaking in general terms, perhaps extrapolating from historical analogy. But a certain newly elected foreign leader who enjoys widespread popularity is slated to visit Beijing later this year. Perhaps personal intervention by this person would be just the kind of stimulus needed to convince Beijing to part with one of its most "valuable" political prisoners.

22 May 2009

Hu Xingdou Successfully Sues ISP for Shutting Down Website

According to this report from Radio Free Asia (in Chinese), Professor Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology has won his lawsuit against the host of his "China Issues" website, Beijing Xinwang Co. Hu filed suit with Beijing Daxing District People's Court in March when his ISP closed down his site for a day on grounds that an anti-corruption article posted on the site constituted illegal content. for closing down the site for one day on the grounds that an anti-corruption article posted on the site constituted "illegal content." The decision is reportedly the first success an individual has had in suing a hosting provider for closing down a site on such grounds. Hu contends that the closure of his site was ordered by the Internet monitoring division of the Suzhou Public Security Bureau, where officials took issue with the post's content. He expressed surprise and joy at the outcome, saying that when he filed the suit, he didn't even really expect the court would even accept it. He says he plans to file suit against the Suzhou Public Security Bureau next.

This is a significant, if not game-changing, decision, an important step in the struggle to preserve space for free expression on the Internet in China. Prof. Hu shouldn't be too surprised, though, if his suit against the Suzhou PSB doesn't get as far.

19 May 2009

Seeking Truth From Facts: The 20th Anniversary Edition

I was interviewed for the radio the other day on the subject of the number of individuals who remain imprisoned in China in connection with the protests 20 years ago. As I wrote last week, Dui Hua publicly revised its estimate for this, cutting it by half. I sensed as I was giving the interview that the reporter was challenging me more than usual, questioning whether the sources behind this estimate were reliable and, subtly, suggesting that I may have some kind of agenda behind minimizing the number of individuals imprisoned from that time.

Perhaps I'm too sensitive. I don't mind being challenged—though I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it—because I can usually provide a good explanation of the basis for my reasoning and assumptions. A good example of that happened just the other day, when I was challenged to explain my estimate for the number of state security arrests in China last year. I have a whole spreadsheet of data and calculations that underlies that one.

In the case of June Fourth, I'll be the first to admit there are a lot of unknown variables, but I'm reasoning on the basis of information that, frankly, no one else has really bothered to aggregate and analyze—at least not for quite some time. That's why I found it a bit frustrating when the reporter who interviewed me chose to add a "rebuttal" of my estimate—from someone whose work I respect a great deal but who has not spent even a fraction of the amount of time I have spent considering the evidence at hand—that said, in effect, "It seems kind of low. I just have to believe there are more prisoners out there who haven't been accounted for."

But as I was fuming, I realized: the emotional stakes are likely higher, or at least different, for this person than they are for me.

Someday, there will be no more June Fourth prisoners in prison. That's simply a fact and, in my opinion, that day will arrive within a matter of a few years. But it's also a fact that, given the lack of transparency in China's criminal justice system, particularly with respect to sensitive events like this, without fuller knowledge of the fates of those detained 20 years ago it's unlikely that we'll ever know when that date actually arrives. But it seems certain that it will precede the day when the official verdict on the "counterrevolutionary turmoil" of 1989 is overturned and the victims of that period are duly accounted for. I just don't see signs of that one anywhere on the horizon.

Under those circumstances, it makes some sense to interpret the reluctance to believe that there are so few remaining prisoners as originating from a fear that, once there are no more prisoners, it will be that much easier to "let go of the past and focus on something more positive" and "let bygones be bygones" (as it was so insensitively put in a recent column in Hong Kong's Standard) and the memory of what happened in 1989 will fade even further. To me, it is rather reminiscent of the way that some in the US cling to the belief that there exist POWs or MIAs from the Vietnam War, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

All I can say is that I have no intention to minimize the suffering of those who paid a price for participating in the events of 1989, nor am I trying to erase historical events from memory. Otherwise, why would we spend so much time trying to bring these obscure prisoners' names into the public eye? My commitment to that history is to "seek truth from facts," not fight one mythology by perpetuating another.

12 May 2009

Accounting for 20 Years of Pain: Li Hai's List

In late April, as part of the effort to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chinese pro-democracy movement and the bloody suppression in Beijing that brought it to an end, the indispensable Chinese-language news and opinion website Boxun published valuable historical documents that, as far as I know, have never been previously published in their original form. A series of painstakingly hand-copied records lists the details of more than 100 men imprisoned in Beijing Number Two Prison after being given long prison sentences for criminal acts allegedly committed during the riots that broke out in Beijing after troops descended on the center of the city.

These were not the students, intellectuals, and labor activists who had occupied Tiananmen Square for much of the spring of 1989, nor were they "political prisoners" in the usual sense of the term. These were mostly young men from the same working-class backgrounds as those who made up the bulk of those felled by military gunfire that night, men who tried to use whatever means necessary to block the advance of military and police vehicles and who vented their anguish over Chinese soldiers firing their weapons on unarmed civilians by setting fires, attacking troop convoys, and seizing rifles and ammunition.

Of the thousands of Chinese from across the country who were arrested following the crackdown in June 1989, these "ruffians" or "hooligans," as they came to be known, are the only ones who remain imprisoned 20 years on. They were given life sentences or suspended death sentences subsequently commuted to life imprisonment for crimes like arson, robbery, theft of weapons, or "hooliganism." It's important to remember that the protests were national in scope: besides Beijing, violent demonstrations took place in other Chinese cities in the spring of 1989, with large numbers of arrests in Shanghai, several different cities in Hunan Province, Xi'an, and Chengdu.

Despite being given heavy sentences, over the years it seems that most of those convicted of violent criminal activity were granted sentence reductions or paroled. The Dui Hua Foundation, which in recent years has made a special effort to use its resources to track these cases and come to some understanding of how many individuals might still be imprisoned from that period, has just released a new estimate putting the number between 25 and 35 and called on the Chinese government to show them clemency in an effort to achieve some measure of reconciliation with this painful period of history.

That we know anything at all about these all-but-forgotten prisoners is mostly thanks to the efforts of a few individuals who have taken it upon themselves to rescue their names from obscurity. One who mustn't be forgotten is Li Hai—the man who 15 years ago compiled the Beijing Number Two list that was recently published. Li, who was active during the 1989 demonstrations and subsequent political activity in the early 1990s, such as the "Peace Charter" movement, paid a heavy price for compiling this and other prisoner lists that eventually wound up in the hands of overseas human rights organizations. He spent nine years in a Beijing prison, much of it reportedly in solitary confinement. Since his release from prison in 2005, Li has remained politically active and was a signatory of the latest in a long series of expressions of Chinese aspirations for fundamental political reform, a document in which he identified his occupation as "human rights defender."

(I wrote this primarily to pay tribute to Li Hai, but also to see whether writing about this subject will kill access to my blog in China. I truly hope not, but if it happens, well there's not much I can do about it. I didn't start writing this blog to subject myself to some regime of censorship. I realize that all of the links probably won't be reachable to Chinese readers without access to the unfiltered Internet, and for this I apologize.)

06 May 2009

Phurbu Tsering, Deng Yonggu and Delayed Verdicts

I've been spending a lot of time recently tracking cases of Tibetans who've been detained over the last year since March 2008. Contrary to what the Chinese media would have you believe, most of these detentions did not involve people who "burned, smashed, or looted" in the violent incidents in Lhasa on March 14. In fact, the vast majority of detentions have been of individuals who engaged in peaceful protests in Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and especially Sichuan provinces—areas known as Amdo and Kham to Tibetans.

One of these cases was much in the news over the past couple of weeks, that involving a Tibetan lama and "living Buddha" named Phurbu Tsering, who is well respected in and around Kardze (Ganzi). Phurbu Tsering has been charged with illegal possession of a firearm and illegal appropriation of government property and faces 15 years in prison. Part of what makes his case so noteworthy is that he is being defended by two well-known Han Chinese defense attorneys from Beijing, Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong, who have so far provided a strong defense poking many holes in the prosecution's case.

One of the things that makes Li and Jiang so good is their work with the international media. When Phurbu Tsering went on trial, they emphasized that under Chinese law the court had one week to render its decision. This created a sense of urgency, a neat time-frame for a focused international campaign to develop and move forward. I'd be extremely surprised, however, if either of them was surprised when, one week having elapsed, the Kangding [Dartsedo] County People's Court opted to postpone issuing a verdict.

It was in this context that I was mightily amused last week to read "legal experts" quoted in an update on the case as saying the decision to delay issuing a verdict in Phurbu Tsering's case was "rare." The only way such a decision could be considered "rare" or "unusual" is if you completely discounted both the international attention being paid to the case and the likelihood of further protests erupting if the court decided to convict this esteemed local figure. (Dozens of nuns were detained in protests following his detention in May 2008.)

Now, I haven't had the time to muster conclusive evidence—and given the lack of transparency in China's criminal justice system, any such evidence would be anecdotal at best—but I can probably think of at least a couple of dozen cases in which this particular procedural one-week deadline for courts to render a verdict in a criminal trial has been ignored. The fact is that for controversial cases like this one it is more-or-less expected that judges will not rush to issue a judgment but, rather, sit and wait for instructions from above about how (and when) to rule—especially, I would argue, when the trial is being held by a basic-level court.

For example, as far as I know there is yet no ruling in Deng Yonggu's criminal defamation trial held nearly two weeks ago. Given all of the attention that's been paid to abuse of criminal defamation charges to stifle criticism of local misconduct—not to mention the connection of Deng's case to last year's Sichuan earthquake, which is about to mark its first anniversary—the lack of a timely verdict is unsurprising.

This doesn't even factor in the flouting of numerous other deadlines in the course of prosecuting criminal cases, particularly sensitive cases involving "state security" charges. As I wrote in this essay, one of the things that made the prosecution of Hu Jia on charges of "inciting subversion" so unusual was how quickly it was carried out. Most of these cases simply drag on and on and on, with no consequences. And that's the part that most people familiar with, for example, the American justice system forget: in China, violations of defendants' rights do not result in cases being dismissed. They are simply ignored.

For this reason, I'm not sanguine about the delay in sentencing for Phurbu Tsering. It's probably true that one of the reasons the sentencing was delayed is because of the international attention the case has garnered. And Phurbu Tsering's lawyers are right to use the delay to create a case for increased, continued pressure. But I fear that the delay merely means that the authorities will seek an opportune moment when the world's attention is focused elsewhere to deliver the bad news. I hope I'm wrong, but many years of tracking these kinds of cases does not give cause for much optimism. It's a sad fact that in individual Chinese cases international pressure seems to work best only after an individual winds up in prison.