Authorities Punish Imprisoned Activist Zheng Enchong After He Receives Human Rights Award

January 23, 2006

A prison official informed the family of imprisoned Shanghai lawyer and housing rights activist Zheng Enchong that he had broken an unspecified rule on December 10, and that they were barred from seeing or speaking to him, Amnesty International reported on December 20.

A prison official informed the family of imprisoned Shanghai lawyer and housing rights activist Zheng Enchong that he had broken an unspecified rule on December 10, and that they were barred from seeing or speaking to him, Amnesty International reported on December 20. Zheng is serving a three-year sentence for disclosing state secrets. Zheng's punishment came days after the German Judges Association announced (in German) that it had awarded Zheng its 2005 Human Rights Award. German President Horst Koehler attended the reception on December 8 announcing the award, and expressed strong concern about China's human rights situation, especially the persecution of lawyers who seek to defend and protect human rights, according to a December 8 Human Rights in China (HRIC) press release. Citing an unnamed source, HRIC also reported that the Shanghai Zhabei District Court told Jiang Meili, Zheng's wife, on October 28 that she could not leave the country because of a "state management dispute."

For background on Zheng's case, see below.

Chinese authorities detained Zheng on June 6, 2003. On October 28, 2003, the Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate People's Court sentenced Zheng to three years in prison on charges of "illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of China." The court's opinion described Zheng's offense as follows:

On May 28, 2003, at his Pu Yuan Road residence defendant Zheng Enchong, after having added notes including "Xinhua Agency internal document, hope you will cite it. Zheng" on a copy of "Forcible Demolitions Trigger Conflicts, Reporters Surrounded and Assaulted While Conducting Interviews" from the Xinhua Agency's 2003 17th edition of "Internal Selections," faxed it to the organization "Human Rights in China" in New York, U.S.A. After this took place the public security agency confiscated this copy, and the Shanghai Municipal State Secrets Office identified the "Forcible Demolitions Trigger Conflicts, Reporters Surrounded and Assaulted While Conducting Interviews" material as being a state secret in the category "confidential."

In rejecting Zheng's appeal on December 18, 2003, the Shanghai High People's Court upheld (in Chinese) the lower court's determination that, while the document in question included no markings indicating it was a state secret, Zheng "should have known" that it was a state secret because it was marked "internal":

Zheng Enchong clearly knew that the "Forcible" article was an essay published in Xinhua's "Internal Selections," that it should be considered an internal department reference document, and that even though it was not marked with a secrecy classification level, Zheng nevertheless should have known that the contents of the "Internal Selections" and its "Forcible" article was related to social stability and the security and interests of the nation, and therefore should have protected its secrecy in accordance with the law.

Article 53 of China's Constitution provides that all Chinese citizens have an obligation to safeguard state secrets, and Article 111 of China's Criminal Law makes it a criminal offense for anyone to disclose state secrets. Article 5 of the Supreme People's Court's Explanation of Certain Issues Regarding the Specific Laws to be Used in Adjudicating Cases of Stealing or Spying to Obtain, or Illegally Supplying, State Secrets for Foreigners extends liability under Article 111 to "any person who knows, or should know, that an item which is not marked secret relates to the security and interests of the nation and . . . illegally supplies it to a foreigner." China's laws and regulations provide lists of what may be deemed a state secret, but these lists are so broad and vague as to encompass essentially all matters of public concern (in addition to the reference to all materials that relate "to the security and interests of the nation" in the previous sentence, see also Article 8 of the State Secrets Law and Article 4 of the Measures for the Implementation of the Law on the Protection of State Secrets).

The Xinhua News Agency is a government agency that reports directly to the State Council. As such, if the "Forcible" article included information that was a state secret, under Article 11 of the State Secrets Law Xinhua had both the governmental authority and the legal obligation to have it classified with one of the three officially recognized state secret designations. In addition, Chinese regulations (see, for example, the Notice Regarding Calling for Resolutely Strengthening and Improving Radio and Television Public Opinion Supervision Work, Notice Regarding Preventing State Secrets from Being Divulged in Publications and the Regulations on the Protection of Secrets in News Publishing) require all news outlets to have personnel and procedures in place to determine whether information intended for public reporting contains state secrets.

Xinhua chose not to classify the "Forcible" article with an officially recognized state secret designation, and instead designated it as "internal." In addition to government laws and regulations requiring news outlets to determine whether news on current events constitutes a "state secret," Communist Party rules (see, for example, the Interim Rules on Chinese Communist Party Internal Supervision) also require news organizations to decide whether the subject matter of a news report is too sensitive for public reporting. In the latter case, when information does not amount to a "state secret," reports must be kept "internal," and only forwarded to government and Party authorities. As Wang Xiaojie, director of the editorial department of Guizhou province's Zunyi Daily, wrote in a December 2004 article in Journalistic Front (a publication of the People's Daily): "for [information] that it is not convenient to make public, it can be provided in the form of internal reference."

China's leaders have said that country is implementing "open government," but Zheng's continued imprisonment is inconsistent with such statements. For example, in May 2005 the front page of the People's Daily carried an article stating:

Open government is the "sunshine project" starting point to ensure the masses' democratic rights and protect the masses' fundamental interests. . . . With respect to handling all instances of exercising administrative authority, all information should be made public except for that involving state secrets and trade secrets protected by law and personal information. Specifically, the central authorities have called for the concept that "public is the principle, non-public is the exception," to be increasingly impressed upon people's hearts.

Although the courts claimed Zheng should have known that material designated "internal" was a state secret, reports in China's state run press indicate Zheng is not alone in being unaware that "internal" is synonymous with "secret." For example:

  • In May 2005 the Chengdu Daily reported (via Xinhua) that 70 percent of all cases of criminal disclosure of state secrets were the result of a "faulty understanding of state secrets."
  • According to a February 2005 Xinhua report, in 2004 China's government shut down 338 publications for publishing "internal" information.
  • Stories from Xinhua's "Internal Selections" are freely available on Chinese Communist Party Web sites, including those of the Beijing Communist Party Central Committee and the Chongqing Communist Party Central Committee.

Finally, several incidents surrounding Zheng Enchong's conviction indicate that his imprisonment was motivated by the Shanghai municipal government's desire to assert control over corruption in that city's property market. In July 2001, the Shanghai Justice Bureau revoked Zheng's license to practice law after he advised more than 500 families displaced by Shanghai's urban redevelopment projects on their rights to government compensation, according to an Amnesty International profile of Zheng. A July 2003 letter from the International Commission of Jurists said that authorities revoked Zheng's License on the basis that he had not complied with regulations relating to lawyers, but officials have never provided details about how Zheng allegedly failed to comply with regulations.

According to Amnesty, in May 2003, the month before authorities detained Zheng, a group of Shanghai residents who were advised by Zheng attempted to sue Zhou Zhengyi, a prominent Shanghai property developer, after their homes were demolished in a property deal between city authorities and a company owned by Zhou. The residents alleged that Zhou and corrupt officials had entered into a transaction worth 300 million Yuan (US$36.25 million) that deprived the former residents of funds to compensate them for the demolition of their homes. Later the same month, Shanghai municipal authorities placed Zhou under house arrest. In June 2003, the Shanghai Star (published by the China Daily) reported that "Backroom property deals, which analysts cite as a factor that sparked an official probe into the dealings of scandal-tainted Shanghai real estate mogul Zhou Zhengyi, are endemic in the city and much of the country, officials and industry executives say." By December Shanghai government officials were denying accusations from China's state-run media that they were involved in securities deals among Shanghai-based companies and companies controlled by Zhou, according to a December 18, 2005 Xinhua report (in Chinese, via People's Daily). In May 2004, the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court sentenced Zhou to three years imprisonment for stock market fraud and falsifying documents, Xinhua reported (via the China Daily) in June of that year.

The Chinese government's handling of media reports regarding the forced demolitions in Shanghai in 2003 underscores the politically sensitive nature of Zheng's role as a housing rights advocate. According to a November 2003 article in the China Economic Times, published by the Development Research Center of the State Council, for several days that month Shanghai municipal authorities attempted to remove all copies of periodicals containing news about forced demolitions, including the People's Daily, from retail distribution outlets. The article, entitled "Is Demolition a State Secret?" questioned whether the government had the authority to designate information regarding demolition protests a state secret. The article was subsequently removed from government-controlled Web sites that had posted it, including those of the China Economic Times Web site (originally available here) and the People's Daily (originally available here). It is still available, however, on non-government controlled Web sites, such as