(New York) ­– Prosecutions in China on state security and terrorism charges doubled in 2015, reflecting the government’s heightened campaign to smother peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme People's Court released the figures in its annual report to the national parliament on March 13, 2016. The statistics include numerous cases investigated by Chinese and international organizations of people prosecuted solely for their peaceful criticism of officials or government policy.

Zhou Qiang, chief of China's Supreme People's Court, bows during a session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 13, 2016.

“China’s doubling of prosecutions for state security and terrorism last year says more about the government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent than it does about threats to national security,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The authorities have increasingly used these charges to prosecute peaceful critics and legally protected activities, often employing vague interpretations of threats to the state. The deeply politicized judicial system makes it virtually impossible to challenge such charges.”

Zhou Qiang, chief of the Supreme People's Court, announced in his report to the National People's Congress (NPC) that in 2015 Chinese courts convicted 1,419 people for threatening state security and taking part in terrorism – almost double the 2014 figure of 712 convictions. Zhou did not explain the increase in cases in 2015, but said that the courts have stepped up efforts against criminals who instigate “secessionist” or terrorist activities.

The authorities have now charged at least a dozen human rights lawyers and activists swept up in a nationwide crackdown in July 2015 with “subversion of state power” and “incitement of subverting state power,” charges treated as crimes endangering state security. Several of these, including lawyer Wang Yu and legal assistant Zhao Wei, were part of the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, which state media described as “a criminal gang” that worked on “sensitive cases” and “seriously disturbed social order.” Veteran journalist Gao Yu, known for her reports on elite politics, was sentenced in April for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” In June, three activists – lawyer Tang Jingling, writer Yuan Xinting, and teacher Wang Qingying – were tried on charges of “inciting subversion” after they distributed and discussed with others publications on ending dictatorships through peaceful means.

The court’s report noted that China’s conviction rate remained above 99 percent, with only 1,039 of more than 1.2 million people put on trial in 2015 acquitted. State security and terrorism charges are especially hard to defend against in Chinese courts. People detained on state security charges, often in solitary confinement for months, are barred from seeing their lawyers and are forced to use government-appointed lawyers in their trials. Witnesses are rarely allowed to testify for them. State television increasingly broadcasts footage of political detainees confessing to their alleged guilt before trial.

China’s doubling of prosecutions for state security and terrorism last year says more about the government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent than it does about threats to national security.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

During the NPC session, China’s top prosecutor, Cao Jianming, said in his report that the Supreme People's Procuratorate, or prosecutor's office, would make it a key priority to “firmly crack down on attempts by hostile forces to infiltrate and damage the country.” Cao's focus on “hostile forces” that are “infiltrating and damaging” the country is consistent with President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on strict ideological lines, and on longstanding insistence by senior officials that criticism and activism originate outside China. Cao’s remarks raise concerns that domestic civil society groups receiving foreign funding or with connections to groups abroad may face renewed harassment and threats from the authorities.

Swedish rights worker Peter Dahlin, who with Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzheng had set up a non-profit group to promote awareness of legal knowledge and human rights among Chinese citizens, was detained in January 2016 and made to confess on state television to having helped fund legal work. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding for training “agents” to carry out “criminal activities that endanger state security.” Dahlin was expelled from China, but Wang, detained in July 2015 on state security charges, remains in police custody.

The sweeping national security law passed in July defines national security as “the country's state power, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity; its people's wellbeing,” as well as the protection of a wide range of terms, including ideological issues and cybersecurity. The broad, catch-all terms are contrary to international law, which requires specific threats to state security to be narrowly defined.

The vague concept of state security appears in other legislation as well. A draft charity law deliberated by the NPC on March 9, 2016, states that groups would be prohibited from carrying out or sponsoring activities that “endanger national security” or public interest.

Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to immediately review all 2015 prosecutions on state security and related charges, and to exonerate and release all those who are being prosecuted or imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The Chinese government should urgently redefine state security and terrorism in line with international standards, and revise all laws on these issues accordingly.

“The newly released statistics reveal precisely how deep the crackdown has been,” Richardson said. “Jailing peaceful critics of the government on vague national security charges is a very worrying trend and an affront to basic freedoms.”