A study of 200 court decisions published in the scholarly Journal of CESNUR demonstrates that living a normal religious life in a banned group is enough to go to jail in China.
by Massimo Introvigne
To be granted asylum in the democratic countries where they escape from China, refugees should prove that they have a “well-founded fear” that, should they return to China, they would be persecuted. In some countries, the debate focuses on the interpretation of article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Law, which imposes jail penalties on those active in groups persecuted as xie jiao (“heterodox teachings,” sometimes translated as “cults”; in fact, the CCP lists as xie jiao any independent religious group that grows too fast or is regarded as hostile to the Party). Chinese embassies often tell authorities abroad that article 300 is only enforced against members of xie jiao who “commit crimes,” in an attempt to persuade foreign courts and refugee commissions that asylums should not be granted.
In the September-October 2019 issue of the academic journal The Journal of CESNUR, I published a study co-authored with Professor James T. Richardson of University of Nevada Reno, widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on the relationships between new religious movements and the law, and Rosita Šorytė, a former Lithuanian diplomat who currently serves as president of the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees (ORLIR). The study examines official interpretive documents of article 300 and 200 cases of members of The Church of Almighty God, the single religious movement most persecuted in China, sentenced by Chinese courts. We concluded that normal religious activities, such as attending worship services, trying to convert friends and relatives, or distributing religious literature are among the “crimes” punished under article 300 with severe jail penalties.
The Story of Article 300
It is worth noting that Article 300, introduced in 1997, has been amended in 2015. Most unfortunately, several court decisions throughout the world quote the version of 1997, ignoring the amendment.
Amendment IX to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China reformulated Article 300 as follows:
Whoever organizes or utilizes any superstitious sect, secret society, or cult organization [xie jiao] or uses superstition to sabotage the implementation of any law or administrative regulation of the state shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years in addition to a fine; if the circumstances are especially serious, be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than seven years or life imprisonment in addition to a fine or forfeiture of property; or if the circumstances are minor, be sentenced to imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention, surveillance or deprivation of political rights in addition to a fine or be sentenced to a fine only.
Whoever organizes or utilizes any superstitious sect, secret society, or cult organization [xie jiao] or uses superstition to cheat any other person, which leads to the person’s serious injury or death shall be punished in accordance with the provisions of the preceding paragraph.
Whoever also commits the crime of raping a woman or swindling any person of his or her property while committing a crime as mentioned in paragraph 1 shall be punished according to the provisions on the joinder of penalties for plural crimes.
What mostly changed between the 1997 and the 2015 versions were the harsher penalties for “organizing and/or using a xie jiao,” which now can include life imprisonment. On the other hand, even “minor circumstances” in the “use” of a xie jiao are now classified under the category of criminal offenses, enlarging the scope of criminal law (although “minor circumstances” warrant lesser penalties: but very few cases are regarded as “minor”).
In our study, we discussed only the first paragraph of article 300, punishing those who “organize or use a xie jiao.” The cases of homicides, theft or rape connected with a xie jiao and mentioned in the second paragraph did not appear in any decision we examined, nor do they concern any of the refugees seeking asylum abroad whose cases we studied.
The formula “organizing and using a xie jiao to sabotage [or ‘undermine’] the implementation of the law,” routinely used in Chinese decisions, may be misleading in democratic countries. “Sabotage the implementation of the law” may evoke some grandiose anti-government plans. In fact, “sabotaging the implementation of the law,” as interpreted by the CCP, simply means here not respecting Chinese law, and Chinese law includes a prohibition to be active in any capacity in a xie jiao.
On January 4, 2017, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued an official interpretation of Article 300. Since previous interpretive documents are still quoted in decisions about refugees, it is important to note that article 16 of the 2017 interpretation clarifies that they are no longer in force.
Article 1 deals with the old problem how to define a xie jiao, stating that
Unlawful organizations established falsely in the name of a religion, Qigong, or other things, that deify or aggrandize their ringleaders, and use methods such as the production and dissemination of superstitious fallacies to beguile and deceive others, developing and controlling members, and endangering society, shall be designated as “xie jiao” as used in article 300 of the Criminal Law.
Edward Irons has demonstrated that this formula, which already existed in previous documents, does not solve the definition problem. In practice, it is a xie jiao whatever movement the authorities decide to list as a xie jiao.
Article 2 is the most important part of the document, as it gives detailed practical examples of circumstances that are not “minor” and are regarded as serious crimes:
(2) Assembling to surround, attack, forcibly occupy, or cause a commotion at State organs, enterprises, public institutions, or in public venues or religious activity sites; disrupting social order;
(3) Illegally holding assemblies, protests, or demonstrations, disrupting social order;
(4) Using violence, coercion or other means to compel others to join or to prevent others from leaving the xie jiao;
(5) Organizing, instigating, or deceiving members or others into not performing legally prescribed obligations;
(6) The use of ‘fake hotspots’, ‘pirate radio’ or other wireless platforms (stations) or wireless frequencies to promote xie jiao;
(8) Recruiting 50 or more xie jiao members;
(9) Amassing assets or causing economic harms in the amount of 1,000,000 RMB or more.
(10) Using currency as a medium to promote xie jiao, where the volume is 500 or more bills (items);
(11) producing or transmitting xie jiao propaganda, reaching any of the following measurement standards:
- 1,000 or more copies (pages) of flyers, spray paintings, images, slogans, or newspapers;
- 250 or more books or journals;
- 250 or more audio tapes, video tapes or other A/V materials;
- 250 or more logos or emblems;
- 100 or more Discs, USB drives, memory cards, portable hard drives, and other mobile storage media;
- 50 or more banners or streamers.
(12) Exploiting communications information networks in any one of the following situations:
- Produced or transmitted 200 or more digital images or articles; 50 or more digital books, periodicals, or A/V items; or a digital archive of 5,000,000 or more characters, or 250 minutes or more of A/V materials.
- Distributed information or made phone calls 1,000 times or more.
- Exploiting online chatrooms reaching 1,000 or more people cumulatively, or exploiting communications groups or social media such as Weixin or Microblogs accounts with 1,000 or more cumulative group members or followers, to promote xie jiao;
- Where xie jiao information has actually been clicked or viewed 5,000 or more times;
(13) Other situations of serious circumstances.
“Illegally holding assemblies” of a xie jiao, including worship meetings, or keeping 1,000 flyers or 250 videos or audio tapes at homes are thus examples of “serious crimes.” To understand how all this works in practice, we examined 200 court decisions.
Case Law: A Study of 200 Cases
Chinese authorities are performing a sustained effort to digitalize and make available online PRC court decisions. Given the size of China, so far only a percentage of the decisions, particularly of the older ones, is available. Nonetheless, the data base China Judgments Online, managed by the Supreme People’s Court, is an impressive achievement, with some 50 million pages of judgments uploaded.
Navigating the data base is not easy for those who are not Chinese lawyers or judges themselves. In the study, we limited our search to (a) cases concerning members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG); (b) sentenced on the basis of article 300; (c) in the year 2018 and in the first seven months of 2019 (January–July), thus clearly after the official Interpretation of 2017; and (d) sentenced to imprisonment of 3 years or more. Although further research may surely discover additional cases, we found 200 individual CAG members who were thus sentenced under article 300 between January 2018 and July 2019 in the data base. Obviously, this does not mean that only 200 CAG members were tried in China during the period we considered. Not all decisions find their way to the data base. URLs there change frequently, too, and we have posted screenshots of the relevant pages on CESNUR’s Web site.
The study of the cases confirms that police and courts try to identify and punish leaders, but also go after ordinary members. They are sentenced for different reasons. First, they try to convert others. In several cases, trying to convert relatives is enough to be sentenced—in these cases, relatives hostile to the CAG would normally testify against the defendant. For instance, one Ms. Li Yanming was sentenced to three years, plus four years of probation (in which she would be submitted to constant surveillance), for having tried to convert her relatives.
Courts also apply the detailed tables of the 2017 official interpretation to assess penalties against those who kept at home flyers, books, videos, and CDs. Mr. Liu Zhaopu kept at home 334 CAG books, plus 1 laptop, 6 TF cards, and 72 CDs containing CAG materials. He was also accused of trying to convert others, and was sentenced to three and a half year in jail.
The CAG is well-known for shooting religious videos. Although most of them are produced abroad, some are made in China. The courts punished people who participated in the production of films in various capacity. Screenwriters were regarded as more dangerous (Mr. Liu Junhua, Mr. Wu Baozhen, and Mr. Yao Shuzhi all got ten years). Actors got lesser penalties, although some of them also participated in the filming process, including Ms. Du Xiaoqin, who was sentenced to three years and six months.
Camera operators such as Mr. Jia Haicheng and Mr. Wang Zongyao got three years plus additional years of probation, despite the fact that both confessed and promised to renounce their faith. Working as a make-up artist for the CAG movies was not taken lightly by the courts either, and costed both Ms. Guo Eryan and Ms. Wang Juan three years and a half in jail.
As most other religions do, the CAG regularly organizes worship and study meetings. Groups persecuted as xie jiao are forbidden to do this in China. A significant number of decisions punished CAG believers who hosted meetings in their homes (and normally committed the additional crime of distributing books and brochures there). Ms. Wang Jinrui kept 5 books and 184 brochures of the CAG, and organized four meetings in her home, for which she was sentenced to a jail penalty of five and a half years. Meetings do not need to be large. Ms. Han Su’e was sentenced to four years for having hosted two CAG members in her home and participated in small worship meetings with them.
In most courts, three years seems a standard penalty for missionary activities on behalf of the CAG, although one Ms. Wu Youjin got seven years, perhaps because she was too successful. Sometimes, sharing the CAG faith within a small personal circle was regarded as even worse than preaching to strangers. Ms. Chen Laiying got five years for evangelizing in her workplace.
The study includes many other examples. What the decisions confirm is that article 300 is applied to CAG members who perform the most normal religious activities, those typically protected by international conventions on religious liberty: they print books and flyers, share their faith with relatives, neighbors, and co-workers, send faith-related files to their co-religionists via the Internet, attend worship gatherings, preach their religion. This is enough to go to jail in China. The claim by Chinese Embassies that article 300 is not punishing the faith of xie jiao members, but rather the crimes they commit, is only true if “crimes” is understood to include the most elementary and basic forms of religious life.