For several years, Dui Hua has been closely tracking the increase in China’s use of the set of crimes that fall under the category of “endangering state security” (ESS). Under Chinese law, these crimes include “subversion” and “splittism” (including incitement thereof), as well as espionage and “illegally providing state secrets to overseas entities.” Basically replacing the category of “counterrevolution” after revision of the Criminal Law in 1997, ESS provisions are primarily aimed at suppressing political dissent in the name of protecting the “security and interests of the [Chinese] state.”

Though the use of ESS charges in China has clearly been on the rise in recent years, there has been nothing comparable to the surge revealed by official figures for 2008, published in the 2009 volume of the China Law Yearbook. In 2008, more than 1,700 people were formally arrested for ESS in China, which is up from 742 the year before (see Chart 1). Prosecutors indicted more than 1,400 for ESS during the year, an increase of 127 percent over 2007 (see Chart 2). Increases on this scale are simply unprecedented in recent memory.

Although unverifiable without breakdowns by province or individual crime—not currently made public—it is believed these dramatic increases reflect a crackdown on alleged “splittist” activities by Tibetans and Uyghurs, particularly after the uprising in Lhasa in March 2008. The subsequent spread of protest throughout the Tibetan plateau, combined with concerns that ethnic unrest and social instability would disrupt the Beijing Olympics, prompted a general tightening of security that remains in place to this day.

The Xinjiang Trials Suggest High Numbers for 2009

Trials for ESS crimes also increased substantially in 2008 (see Chart 3). The number of adjudicated trials of first-instance involving ESS charges soared from roughly 300 in 2007 (a level more or less consistent since 2000) to over 450 in 2008, or an increase of 50 percent.

Unlike the figures provided for arrests and indictments, China does not specifically publicize annual totals for ESS trials. Since 1999, public figures for ESS cases have been combined with the number of cases involving “dereliction of duty by military personnel” in a category of trials labeled “other.” Based on analysis of earlier statistical data, however, Dui Hua estimates 99 percent of the cases covered by this “other” category involve ESS crimes.

It appears we can expect high numbers for ESS again in 2009—due again in large part to crackdowns on ethnic unrest. On January 15, Rozi Ismail, president of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) Higher People’s Court, reported to the regional people’s congress that courts in the XUAR adjudicated 437 ESS cases in 2009, compared to 268 cases in 2008—an increase of 63 percent. He also revealed that 255 individuals had received sentences of at least 10 years in prison, including life imprisonment or death sentences. (By late January, western media had reported at least 26 individuals had been sentenced to death for crimes related to last year’s unrest, and at least nine of those convicted had already been executed.)

It is not clear whether the totals for adjudicated cases cited by Rozi Ismail include first- and second-instance trials for the same case. Therefore, it is difficult to know exactly what proportion of the 466 first-instance trials nationwide in 2008 were from Xinjiang. However, Dui Hua research has already established that in the early part of the last decade, Xinjiang ESS trials typically accounted for between one-half to two-thirds of the national total, despite the fact that the XUAR accounts for less than two percent of the total population of China.

The large increase in ESS trials in Xinjiang in 2009 suggests we can expect to see high numbers of arrests, indictments, and trials nationwide for last year, especially considering that Xinjiang ESS cases have historically involved three or more defendants, on average. A sense of just how high the numbers might be could come as early as March, when the heads of the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate make their respective work reports to the National People’s Congress.