Authorities in Xinjiang Use Pledge System To Exert Control Over Village Life

December 10, 2010

Authorities in the far western region of Xinjiang have been using a system of "pledges" to regulate behavior in parts of the region's villages. Under the pledge system, which began in Hoten district in 2006 and is now present in a few other Xinjiang localities, village residents and village officials enter into agreements with villagers' committees to abide by local village "codes of conduct," or face fines for non-compliance. The pledge system has no explicit basis in Chinese law, though it builds on legal provisions that allow villages in China to pass village codes of conducts as a form of local regulation. Local officials throughout China have used village codes of conduct to implement population planning requirements, regulate social order, and manage local production, among other tasks. The codes as implemented in some localities throughout China have drawn criticism for exceeding their scope of authority as stipulated under law and for being formulated without villagers' input. In Xinjiang, authorities have used the pledge system to bolster the efficacy of these codes of conduct, placing special emphasis on the pledges and codes of conduct to curb "illegal religious activity." Fines for failing to comply with controls over religion or other provisions in the pledges may exceed a quarter of the yearly per-capita income in some parts of Xinjiang. The pledge system in Xinjiang sheds light on the controversial role of village codes of conduct throughout China, additional mechanisms of control placed over village life in Xinjiang, and the nature of controls over religion in Xinjiang at the grassroots level.

Since 2006, villages in Hoten district, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), have been regulating village behavior through a system of pledges known as zungui shouyue chengnuoshu (literally, "promises to respect the rules and observe customs," also described in a Uyghur-language source, discussed below, as a mes'uliyetname, or accountability certificate). Under the pledge system, village residents and village officials enter into agreements with the local villagers' committee to abide by the village "code of conduct" (cungui minyue) or face fines for non-compliance. The pledge system has no explicit basis in Chinese law, though it builds on legal provisions that allow villages in China to pass village codes of conducts. A Congressional-Executive Commission on China survey of online articles that mention the pledges suggests that this specific type of institutionalized pledge system based on village codes of conduct may be unique to the XUAR, with limited exceptions. The CECC survey, conducted through the Google search engine in September 2010 using the expression zungui shouyue chengnuoshu, resulted in 51 pages after filtering results, with a majority from Hoten district. A limited number of pages were from localities within Fukang municipality in the Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture in the XUAR, Jiashi (Peyziwat) county in Kashgar district, localities within Altay district in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, and a government Web site within the Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture. (Some results were tables of contents, and in two cases, the location could not be determined.) In addition, the CECC survey found three references from sites outside of the XUAR. Two documents from Gantian township, Yueyang county, Hunan province, called for using village pledges. See a Gantian villagers' committee document dated June 17, 2010, and an April 10, 2010 posting on the Gantian government Web site. The latter includes a sample pledge. Current XUAR Communist Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian previously served as Party Secretary of Hunan, and the province is home to the Fengshu Uyghur and Hui Township in Taiyuan county, but the connection, if any, to Gantian township is not clear. A third document, a May 26, 2010, report on the Jiangshan municipality, Zhejiang province, government Web site, describes a township using the pledge as part of work to integrate highway management and traffic safety into village codes of conduct within the township.

A Google search of Web sites using related search terms (such as zunguishouyue chengnuo zhidu alone and chengnuoshu or zungui shouyue where used within the proximity of cungui minyue) found that while use of pledges to regulate officials' conduct or to address specific behaviors, such as drug use, were present elsewhere in China, only an extremely limited number of villages have reported on using pledges to enforce village codes of conduct, similar to the pledge system used in the XUAR, though a Google search alone cannot provide a definitive conclusion in this regard. For limited reports elsewhere, see an April 27, 2009, report about a village in Jiangshan municipality, Zhejiang, on the Dongfang Fazhi Web site, a July 10, 2008, report on the Jiangshan Legal Office Web site (including a copy of a pledge with similar provisions to the pledge in Gantian, discussed above), and an October 22, 2010, report from a village within Chengdu municipality, Sichuan province. Searches of Chinese academic journals on the Eastview database (subscription required) found no articles that reference the pledge system in the XUAR or similar systems elsewhere.

Background: Codes of Conduct in Chinese Villages

Authorities in the XUAR link the pledges to village "codes of conduct" (cungui minyue in Mandarin, also translated into English as "village regulations" or "village rules and customary practices," among other expressions, and kent qa'idisi xelq ehdinamisi in Uyghur), which are stipulated in Article 20 of China's 1998 Organic Law on Villagers' Committees. (See below for detailed reports from XUAR officials discussing the relationship between the pledges and codes of conduct.) According to this article of the Law on Villagers' Committees, villagers' assemblies may establish codes of conducts, as well as village charters and other locally made decisions, but none may conflict with China's constitution, state laws and regulations, or state policies. In addition, such local documents must not infringe on individual, democratic, and property rights.

An interpretation of Article 20, on the National People's Congress Web site, elaborates on village codes of conduct, describing them as behavioral norms (xingwei guifan) that villagers' assemblies deliberate over and formulate in accordance with state laws, regulations, and policies and the actual conditions in villages (part 1). (Villagers' assemblies are comprised of villagers above 18 years old and are convened with a majority of these villagers, or two-thirds of household representatives, in attendance. Villagers' committees, made up of three to seven elected members, are accountable to the villagers' assemblies. See, e.g., Articles 9, 17, and 18 of the 1998 Law on Villagers' Committees.) The interpretation enumerates four categories of issues that may fall under village codes of conduct: safeguarding "order in production" in areas such as water use, forestation, and keeping livestock; safeguarding social order, such as through prohibitions on theft, gambling, and drug use; carrying out legal duties like paying taxes and observing population planning rules; and issues related to the construction of a "spiritual civilization," such as promoting patriotism toward the state and promoting hygiene (part 2(2)). The interpretation does not specifically mention use of the codes of conduct to regulate religious affairs, a focus included in the codes as implemented in the XUAR (see discussion below). The interpretation elaborates on the prohibition against village codes of conduct conflicting with the laws of the state. It notes that the codes must not "be contrary" to the constitution, laws, regulations, and policies of the state; must not violate the "spirit" and "aim" of such documents; must not exceed the scope of their own powers; and must not stipulate "unsuitable measures of punishment" (part 4). It cites as "illegal punishment measures" such things as parading through the street or tearing down the property of someone who violates the code of conduct (part 4). It does not specify, however, what forms of punishment are acceptable and does not address the issue of fines, a controversial aspect of the codes as carried out in practice (see next paragraph). (On October 28, 2010, the National People's Congress Standing Committee adopted an amended version of the Organic Law on Villagers' Committees, effective that day. Article 27 of the revised law also includes a provision allowing villagers' assemblies to pass codes of conduct. A new clause adds that town or township governments are to order the codes and other village documents to be rectified if they violate national laws, regulations, and policies. Because this analysis refers to events prior to the passage of the revision, references to the law and interpretations of it refer to the 1998 version of the Organic Law on Villagers' Committees. The amended version, like the original, makes no references to a pledge system akin to the one in the XUAR.)

The village codes of conduct, as implemented in practice, have drawn criticism for exceeding their stipulated scope of authority. Various articles in academic, Party, and government-affiliated journals have criticized villages, for example, for implementing codes of conduct without the required input from villagers; for including provisions that contravene national laws and regulations; for failing to publicize the codes; and for including excessive punishments, such as confiscation of property, illegal detention, and killing livestock that trespass on others' property. (See, for example, the following articles, available through the Eastview database: Jiang Yanjun, "Thoughts on Ensuring the Legality of 'Codes of Conduct'" [Guanyu baozhang "cungui minyue" hefaxing de sisuo], Research on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Issue 5, 2003; Wei Caiyun and Wei Min, "Village Codes of Conduct Should Not Violate the Law" [Cungui minyue bie weifa], Party Building, Issue 8, 2007; Yu Dashui, "Research on Village Codes of Conduct" [Cungui minyue zhi yanjiu], Research on Socialism, Issue 2, 2001; Lai Hankou, "Village Codes of Conduct Must Not Conflict with The Constitution and Laws" [Cungui minyue bude yu xianfa he falu xiangdichu], Village and Town Forum, Issue 10, 1999; Zi Zheng, "Village Codes of Conduct Are Not Equal to Law" [Cungui minyue budengyu falu], Southern Agricultural Machinery, Issue 1 , 2000; Zhu Juanchao, "Village Codes of Conduct Must Not Violate the Law" [Cungui minyue bude weibei falu], Chinese Civil Administration, Issue 8, 1998.) One article stressed specifically that there was no legal basis for allowing villagers' committees and codes of conduct to be used to impose administrative punishments, and another article cited a case where a court invalidated the fine a village cadre imposed under a village code of conduct. (See the articles by Zi and Zhu).

Under China's Administrative Punishment Law, which includes fines as a form of administrative penalty (Article 8), administrative punishments are to be based on laws, regulations, or "rules and stipulations" (guizhang guiding), and carried out by administrative organs (Article 3). Such a reference to "rules and stipulations" does not appear to include the village codes of conduct. According to the interpretation of the codes of conduct, cited above, the codes are based in Article 24 of China's Constitution, which allows simply for various "rules of conduct and common pledges" (shouze gongyue), a category not addressed in China's Legislation Law. Under Article 17 of the Administrative Punishment Law, only entities authorized by law may impose administrative penalties. Articles 18 and 19 allow administrative organs to entrust other agencies with imposing penalties under select circumstances. (The penalty of detention, if imposed by codes of conduct, is illegal because under Article 8(5) of the Legislation Law, punishments that involve deprivation of personal freedoms must be established by national law, not lower levels of legislation.) The interpretation of the codes of conduct does not clarify in what capacity, if any, village organizations could be authorized to impose administrative penalties, as opposed to other forms of penalties such as "education," and the interpretation does not explain how, if at all, violations of codes of conduct could be the basis for fines. Interpretations of other articles of the Law on Villagers' Committees stress the role of township and town governments in carrying out administrative functions and note that village self-management does not amount to administrative management. (See interpretations, via the NPC Web site, of Articles 2 and 4.)

The XUAR system, whereby villagers and officials agree to be fined if they violate the pledges based on codes of conduct, could be cast as avoiding the question of villages' fining authority by making the pledge system voluntary. At the same time, however, the authority of villages to set such a "voluntary" fining structure in place remains in question and appears in practice to introduce the same problems as seen in the fining systems in village codes of conduct elsewhere in China. (Reports from the XUAR do not address what types of people have not signed the pledges and how their violations of village codes of conduct are dealt with.) In addition, while some critics of code of conducts elsewhere in China attribute fines and other abuses to a lack of higher level oversight (see journal articles above), the XUAR pledges were set in motion by prefectural-level authorities in Hoten district and reported on by a XUAR regional government official (discussed below), indicating high-level awareness and approval for a system which may circumvent administrative penalty requirements for fining village residents. (In an unrelated case that brings in additional political considerations but may be partially illustrative of the problematic status of "voluntary" fining mechanisms, authorities in Shiqu (Sershul) county, Ganzi (Kardze) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, ordered a Tibetan monastery to stop a fining system described by the monastery as a voluntary agreement with local residents to a pay a penalty for speaking a mix of Tibetan and Mandarin. See a November 9, 2010, Voice of America article and November 9 Phayul article.)

Pledge System in Xinjiang

From Codes of Conduct to Pledges, with Focus on "Illegal Religious Activities" and Separatism

Several documents from Hoten district, where the village pledges appear to have originated, detail the parameters of the pledge system. An August 25, 2010, article on the XUAR Rule of Law Leading Group Office Web site (hereafter "Fazhi Xinjiang") reported that the Hoten government first instituted the pledges in 2006, to address a lack of "measures of restraint" for people who refused to abide by village codes of conduct. A March 15, 2008, speech from a XUAR Rule of Law Leading Group Office member and Judicial Department Party committee secretary specifically described the pledges as a way of adding greater force to the village codes of conduct, according to a copy of the speech posted April 6, 2008, on the Fazhi Xinjiang Web site. The village codes of conduct, in turn, were first instituted by the Hoten Judicial Bureau in 2000, in response to various "problems" in the district, including "religious problems" and "infiltration" by the "three evil forces" (terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism), according to the August 25, 2010, Fazhi Xinjiang report. These village codes of conduct focused on areas including social order, religious belief, education, and population planning, among other issues. In 2006, authorities first issued a sample pledge, for which villagers' committees led villagers in adapting the pledges to local conditions, according to the article. The pledges "took the form of agreed-upon contracts and mutual agreements that clarified village cadres' and villagers' duties and responsibilities in the management of difficult points within the village," according to the article. According to a January 22, 2007, opinion from three Hoten district government and Party offices (via the Hoten district government Web site), which calls for "perfecting" the pledge system, neighborhood committees also are to implement the pledge system on a trial basis, in accordance with "residents' codes of conduct" (jumin gongyue).

The August 25, 2010, Fazhi Xinjiang article described the pledges as particularly effective in dealing with cases of people suspected of "illegal religious activities," noting the pledges both played a role in filling in gaps that laws and administrative punishments could not address and acted as a "front-line" defense in the "battle against separatism." A report from the Hoten District Politics and Law Commission, posted March 12, 2009, on Xinjiang Peace Net, added that "from start to finish, separatist groups and illegal religious activities" have been the administrative focus of the pledges. The Xinjiang Peace Net article also reported that the "problem" of women evading birth control inspections had been resolved and said the pledges had raised the number of people who attend village meetings and the number of students who attend school. It added that the pledges also eased problems connected to "collecting fees" and problems connected to people going out to work (chugongnan de wenti). A Hoten official cited in an investigative report on the village pledges in Hoten (from Legal Daily via the Europe-China Strategic Cooperation and Development Forum Web site, April 8, 2008) similarly noted the effectiveness of the pledge system to address "difficult problems" involving such issues as population planning policies, school attendance, and "organizing farmers to participate in labor for the collective welfare." (Uyghurs inside the XUAR have reported that authorities continue to enforce hashar, or forced group labor for public works projects. See Section IV--Xinjiang in the CECC 2008 Annual Report for more information.)

A number of sources (see, e.g., the August 25, 2010, Fazhi Xinjiang article above and source cited below) connected the pledges to a campaign in the region to have "rule of law enter the countryside" (fazhi jin xiangcun) The campaign is present in an apparently limited extent in some other parts of western China, as seen in an August 19, 2010, report from the Shaanxi Province Law and Politics Office and September 29, 2010 report from the Gansu Daily. An exam sheet for evaluating leading cadres from an area in the XUAR outside Hoten described three focal points of work to have "rule of law enter the countryside": compiling and printing village codes of conduct, using the pledges as a basis for implementing the village codes of conduct, and progressively promoting the village codes of conduct, according to Item 88 of the answer sheet, posted May 30, 2010, on the Ruoqiang (Qarqiliq) county, Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, XUAR government Web site.

Legal Basis for the Pledges

A Hoten official cited in the April 8, 2008, investigative report on village pledges described the legal basis for the pledges simply as "villagers' autonomy plus contractual agreement." The official likened villagers' committees' promotion of the pledges to other types of autonomous acts such as democratic elections, policies, management, and supervision. The official added that if disputes arise over violations of the contracts, those involved can bring a suit in court based on contract litigation, but because villagers themselves agree to undertake the pledges, they have honored the requirement to pay fines and no one has brought a lawsuit against a villagers' committee.

Fines for Noncompliance

The pledges detail a system of fines for non-compliance, in line with concerns (cited above in the August 25, 2010 article) about a lack of adequate "measures of restraint" in the codes of conduct. The March 12, 2009, article from the Hoten District Politics and Law Commission said that the fines "respect the wishes of the people," are "fair, reasonable, legal, and useful" and not only "constrain" people's behavior but protect their interests. In practice, however, fines have run higher than a fourth of a locality's per-capita income for rural residents. According to the January 22, 2007, opinion from three Hoten district government and Party offices, single fines for violations of the pledge can run as high as 500 yuan (US$75), though should not exceed this amount. In 2007, per-capita net income for farmers and herders in Hoten was 1,818 yuan (US$274), according to a communique posted November 5, 2008, on the Hoten district government Web site. The 2007 opinion from three government and Party offices added that villagers' committees are the primary bodies that deal with punishments for violations of the pledges, except in the cases where cadres, rather than residents, violate the provisions. In dealing with violators who participated in "gangs" (an apparent reference to separatist organizations, based on the context) or "illegal religious activities," authorities also are to convene a mass meeting to "help and educate" (bangjiao) offenders, in accordance with village codes of conduct, according to the opinion.

The April 8, 2008, investigative report (cited above) includes partial wording from a pledge in force in a village within Hoten municipality, with details on the system of fines in force. Under the pledge, villagers' committee leaders face 100-yuan (US$15) fines for failing to mediate disputes promptly and letting them escalate. Failing to "promptly report villagers' opinions of all kinds and letting villagers sustain economic losses" carries a 200-yuan (US$30) fine. Villagers who "organize underground sites for teaching scripture or provide a location for illegal religious activities" face a fine of 500 yuan (US$75). Failing to implement requirements for nine years of compulsory education and letting children skip school incurs a fine of 20 yuan (US$3) for each day missed. Violations of the pledges also may result in canceling subsidies for categories of people including religious personnel and may result in carrying out mass meetings to provide "help and education." An April 7, 2008 report on Xinjiang Peace Net provided a specific example of a Party branch secretary fined for violating the pledge after he took sick leave without going through the proper channels and thus failed to arrive at a village mosque in a timely manner to "understand the conditions" there. The article did not specify the amount of the fine. (See a CECC analysis on controls over religion in the XUAR for more discussion of official oversight of mosques in the region.)

Some articles have noted the number of people fined or amount of revenue brought in by the fines. According to an official cited in the April 8, 2008, investigative report, among 111 villages inside Hoten municipality that signed pledges in 2007, there were 3,096 cases of violations bringing in more than 84,900 yuan (US$12,774) in cash. The official said a supervisory group elected by villagers' representatives oversaw the villagers' committee's collection of fines and that the committee put it to the villages' use, primarily for rewarding the comprehensive administration of promoting the pledge and expenses for upholding stability. According to the report, fines were levied on 36,823 people across Hoten district in the past two years. (The statistics are the same as those cited in the August 25, 2010, Faxhi Xinjiang article discussed above, suggesting the 2010 article may be republished from an earlier article or is relying on older statistics.) A March 2, 2009, Uyghur-language report from Xinjiang People's Radio, via the Kunlun government Web site, described fining 887 people in Pishan (Guma) county, Hoten, for violations, yielding 98,205 (US$14,775) yuan.

Scope of the Pledges and Signing Rates

Although authorities stress the role of the pledges as voluntary agreements, the 2007 opinion from three Hoten district government and Party offices called for achieving a signing rate of over 98% within each village. A March 19, 2010, article on Fazhi Xinjiang reported that as of the latter half of February, 371,204 households in rural areas within Hoten district had signed pledges, achieving a signing rate of 98.4%. Within Hoten district, Pishan county described achieving a 99% signing rate, according to the March 2, 2009, report from Xinjiang People's Radio. In Shuimogou township, Fukang city, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, one of the areas in the XUAR other than Hoten that has implemented the pledge system, the justice office called for achieving a signing rate that exceeds 95%, according to an April 28, 2009, report on the Fukang government Web site. According to an official cited in the April 8, 2008, investigative report, the pledges signed by all 111 villages inside Hoten municipality in 2007 amounted to a signing rate of 96.9% or over 31,600 households. In 2010, residential district and community committees in Hoten municipality had signed pledges with 19,103 residents, achieving a signing rate of 92.1%, according to a March 24, 2010, report on the Hoten municipal government Web site. The reports do not specify the status of people who do not sign the pledges and what consequences they face for violating a village code of conduct.

Xinjiang Pledges Curb Religious Activity

As Hoten authorities instituted the pledges in part to address "illegal religious activities," a number of reports on the pledges stress their role in curbing religion. One report describes conditions for religion in Hoten and the scope of "illegal" activities. The report from the Hoten District Politics and Law Commission, posted March 12, 2009, on Xinjiang Peace Net, described Hoten as a "backward" area in terms of economic and social development, with a "pronounced religious atmosphere, low cultural level among the rural population, and [where] consciousness of democratic legal institutions is correspondingly weak." It also described the district as a key target for "infiltration" and "destruction" by "western enemy forces" and the "three forces" (terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism) inside and outside the country. It noted later in the report that "illegal religious activities" have persisted despite repeated bans. In the speech posted April 6, 2008, on Fazhi Xinjiang, the XUAR Rule of Law Leading Group Office member and Judicial Department Party committee secretary said that "in accordance with Hoten district's ethnic and religious characteristics," the pledges made "restricting illegal religious activities" their focus, "filling in blank spots not yet touched upon in legal and administrative punishments." The speech cited Hoten's pledge system for playing an "outstanding" role in work to curb "illegal religious activities" and uphold rural stability. An August 27, 2010, report on the Fazhi Xinjiang Web site, about conditions in Jiashi (Peyziwat) county, Kashgar district, said the pledge system was useful in stemming suspected Hizb-ut-Tahrir membership in several villages.

In addition, at a January 16, 2009, district-wide meeting in Hoten, authorities called for strengthening the handling of people involved in "illegal religious activities," in accordance with rural localities' use of the pledge system, according to a January 20, 2009, report on the Hoten district government Web site. The article called for raising fines against key people involved in cases of "illegal religious activities," while using "criticism and education" against those "unaware of the truth" involved in such activities who show an attitude of "repentance and reform." In January 2009 in Moyo (Qaraqash) county, Hoten district, authorities launched a three-month "rectification" campaign to curb "illegal religious activities," according to a January 9, 2009, Xinhua report. Authorities called for promoting signing of the village pledges to address "illegal religious activities." In one village in Chira county, Hoten, no cases of "illegal religious activity" occurred for a one-year period, after authorities implemented the pledge system, according to a March 18, 2008, report on Fazhi Xinjiang.

Some reports indicate the use of pledges to institute prohibitions and penalties beyond what are stipulated in XUAR and national regulations on religion. In Shuimogou township, Fukang municipality, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, the local pledge included fines between 100 and 500 yuan for engaging in a range of activities, including activities beyond prohibited conduct in the national Regulation on Religious Affairs and both the 1994 XUAR Regulation on the Management of Religious Affairs and the 2001 amendments in force in the region (unpublished but documented by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China in the report Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang). It also includes conduct not specified in a region-wide directive of unknown legal status, also apparently in force in the XUAR, known as the "Autonomous Region Definitions of 23 Types of Illegal Religious Activities." (Estimated date of issue is 2008. See a copy posted February 25, 2008, on the Chinggil (Qinghe) county, Altay district, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, government Web site.) In the Shuimogou township pledge, prohibited activities include organizing "underground" scripture study sites (prohibited in Article 11 of the 2001 amendments to the XUAR regulation), as well as participating in underground scripture study classes, furnishing sites for "illegal" religious activities, participating in "all types" of "illegal religious activities," forcing children, family and friends, and neighbors to study scripture, or knowing but not reporting that others conducted or participated in "illegal religious activities" (activities not specifically prohibited in higher level regulations or directives, though broad restrictions on children's religious activities remain in force in the region). See the October 16, 2009, report on the Fukang government Web site.

Villagers in Hoten Detained, Fined, for Violating Pledge

In 2009, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on a group of Uyghurs in Hoten fined in connection to violating their villages' pledges, after the group visited a shrine outside their villages to conduct prayers. A village official cited in the April 2, 2009, RFA report said Hoten district Party authorities had forbidden "cross village worshiping" and that "an agreement between villagers and the government required [the village official] to impose the fine." (Article 16 of the 2001 amendments to the XUAR"s 1994 regulation on religious affairs also prohibits "mass religious activity which spans different localities," but the amended regulation does not specifically stipulate fines for violation of the regulation, while the penalty of detention is outside the formal scope of the regulation.) A man who was among those detained said that authorities ordered them to pay the 500-yuan fine or face continued detention. Following their release, authorities in one village held a village-wide meeting to publicly criticize their actions, he said in the article.

For more information about conditions in the XUAR and controls over religion in the region, See Section II-Religion and Section IV-Xinjiang in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.