Last month, the Chinese government banned online retailers from selling the Bible on their platforms. Within days after the ban was announced, ecommerce giants Taobao and JD.com had removed the book from its websites. In an officially atheist country where stories of religious oppression often make international headlines, many would be surprised to learn that the Bible is a bestseller. In March 2017, more than 160 million Bibles were printed by Nanjing-based Amity Printing – the state-approved company that holds a monopoly on all Bible printing and distribution in China. Approximately sixty percent of Amity’s Bibles are for domestic consumption in state-sanctioned churches where they are sold at an affordable price. Under Chinese law, it is illegal to publish, print, or distribute the Bible without a license, not only at privately-owned bookstores but also state-run chains such as Xinhua Bookstore.
While the number of Christians in China is a contested figure, scholars broadly agree that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the country. The millions of Bibles printed by Amity certainly do not meet the demands of the rising number of Christians. Smaller and independent publishers that are not state-approved have attempted to satisfy the excess demand by either directly importing Bibles and religious texts from overseas or by printing and selling such texts outside of the state-sanctioned churches. Some distribute the materials free of charge, while others seek to make a small profit to support their own churches. Many are subject to imprisonment under the charge of “illegal business activity” – an economic crime said to undermine the socialist market order.
The crime of illegal business activity has also been used against booksellers who sell political books, not necessarily of a religious nature, that are banned in the mainland. A court in Guangdong Province sentenced an American citizen to five years in prison for illegal business activity in 2016. The businessman, Wang Jianmin, published political magazines in Hong Kong of which a small number were distributed in China. The Causeway Bay booksellers – Gui Minhai, Lee Bo, and Lam Wingkee among others – were abducted in Thailand and Hong Kong and brought back to China where they have been investigated for illegal business activity. Gui is currently being held somewhere in China. His legal status is not known.
An early case involving the charge of illegal business activity and Christian booksellers concerns the Beijing-based house church pastor Shi Weihan (石维翰). Shi gave away free Bibles and other devotional texts printed by his private printing company. The texts were not government approved and Shi was consequently detained in November 2007. The police seized over 140,000 unlicensed Bibles and devotional texts and in June 2009 the shareholders and executives of Shi’s printing company were sentenced to one to three years’ imprisonment alongside Shi.
No less sensational is the case of Enyu (lit.: Grace of Rain) bookstore, the first and only Christian bookstore in Taiyuan, Shaanxi, founded by house church leader Ren Lacheng (任拉成). The bookstore sold Christian gift items in addition to traditional print and video offerings. In 2012, Li Wenxi (李文习), who came from a Beijing-based Christian bookstore, provided staff training at Ren’s newly expanded bookstore. The Xiaodian District People’s Court accused the duo of making an illegal profit of 5,460 yuan from the sale of 780 hymnals. In June 2013, Ren was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and Li received a two-year prison sentence for selling books procured from a Guangzhou-based church. Unofficial news sources reported that Li completed his full two-year sentence in December 2014. A judgment Dui Hua discovered online indicated that Ren was released one year early on December 18, 2016, following a sentence reduction granted to him one month before his release.
Taobao and Bibles
Dui Hua has uncovered two related cases involving individuals punished for selling religious texts and items on Taobao, a Chinese ecommerce site – long before the recently announced ban. Shortly after Han X (韩某), a Shandong resident, opened his online bookstore in July 2012, he got in touch with Tu X (屠某), another online Christian bookstore owner in Jilin. For the first three years of operation, Han acquired Bibles and hymnals from other Taobao vendors and sold them to customers nationwide. Payments were made through Alipay, a popular Chinese mobile payment platform. The payment record showed that Tu had sent Han a total of 391,191 yuan between August 9, 2012 and June 29, 2015. In addition to reselling the hymnals acquired from Han, Tu also sold Bibles he acquired from state-sanctioned churches, audio Bibles, and Christian-themed paintings, calendars, and couplets on Taobao. Neither Tu nor Han had obtained a license to operate their online bookstores. The courts found that their online business violated state regulations and the circumstances were grave enough to disrupt the “normal market order,” even though Tu was found to have made a profit of only 15,000 yuan over the three-year period. Tu claimed that he only made a few cents worth of profit from each item sold online. The judgment did not state how much profit Han had made from Taobao, but a local court in Shandong handed down a three-year suspended sentence for the crime of illegal business activity, with a supplemental fine of 80,000 yuan. Tu was given a suspended sentence of two years in Jilin and a fine equal to the entire 15,000 yuan profit he had made.
State-Sanctioned Churches Are No Exception
One would be mistaken to assume that sentences for illegal business activity are generally as lenient as they were for Han and Tu. The case of Li Dongzhe (李东哲) is an example of how severe the punishment for selling religious texts can be, even for members of state-sanctioned churches.
Li Dongzhe is an ethnically Korean pastor who was based at Chaoguang Church, a state-sanctioned church in Liaoning. The church had a small store that sold Christian books, which Li and his wife Piao Shunnan (朴顺南) procured from a Guangzhou-based church. To raise funds for the church, the couple entrusted their church officer to procure over 100,000 copies of Christian books worth approximately 500,000 yuan from Guangzhou. The books were then sold to church members in Liaoning and other provinces at prices 10-20 percent higher than the purchase price, allegedly to cover transportation costs. The church made a profit of 1-2 yuan per book, with a total profit of approximately 60,000 yuan. It was later discovered that the books were printed by a publisher only licensed to process book design and packaging, not to print literature. The book covers were designed by church members, and the books had no author names, place of publication, or ISBNs. Dui Hua has previously reported that Korean Christians, including both South Korean nationals and ethnically Korean Chinese, disproportionately face arbitrary detention and harassment.
As with the other Christians convicted of illegal business activity, the purchase and reselling of unauthorized religious books by Li and his wife were said to constitute a “grave circumstance” and to have “seriously disrupted the market order.” In February 2017, the couple were each sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and are now scheduled for release in May 2023. Three other members of their church were sentenced to three to five years' imprisonment.
Illegal Business Activity Without a Business
The offence of illegal business activity has also been applied to those who give away religious materials for free and those who make just a marginal profit. The standard of conviction for illegal business activity does not require intent to establish a profitable business. Unofficial news media reported that Beijing house church pastor Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) had been interrogated by state security police nearly ninety times before he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in November 2005. Cai was accused of printing over 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian texts. He gave away the texts for free. The Ministry of Public Security called his case the “largest foreign religious infiltration in the history of the People’s Republic of China.”
The judgment for aforementioned Korean pastor Li Dongzhe revealed that his case was first discovered and investigated by guobao (i.e. Internal Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security) in 2016. Guobao probed the church officer’s personal email account and concluded that Li’s church had sold 71,515 copies of illegal books, which the police valued at 291,326.90 yuan.
Dui Hua uncovered a similar case in Shenzhen where two partial-named members of Shenzhen registered churches were convicted of illegal business activity for helping warehouse and deliver more than 200,000 Christian books and 7,000 CDs. The two were given suspended sentences in December 2017, even though the court failed to obtain evidence of them having received any monetary gains.
The Politicization of “Illegal Business Activity”
Prosecutors in China frequently denounce underground Christian bookstores for undermining the “market order.” Market order in China is predicated on a rigid licensing network managed by public security, industry, and commerce bureaus and by a set of stringent administrative rules. By franchising monopolies to Amity Printing and Three-Self churches, the central government can readily control circulation and censor content. Attempts to privately print, distribute, and sell without a license not only constitute an administrative violation but also a criminal offence. In the Taobao case, the bookseller was criminally liable for disrupting the “market order” as he had violated the Publications Management Regulations, an administrative regulation issued by the State Council in December 2001.
The offence of illegal business activity bears striking resemblance to the now-defunct crime of “profiteering,” encoded in 1979 to safeguard state policy and administrative rules against the private businesses that emerged during the reform and opening era. The first illegal publishing case was in Tianjin in 1987, two months following a State Council notice that authorized a crackdown on illegal publishing. The notice called for criminal punishments in publishing cases that had “serious consequences,” even though the 1979 Criminal Law made no reference to publishing as a crime. What followed was that the Supreme People's Court (SPC) deemed the Tianjin case a significant case, in which infringement of the state’s management over publishing and printing constituted profiteering. In the Tianjin case, the defendants were sentenced for compiling and printing criminal law casebooks without a license.
The amended 1997 Criminal Law also makes no reference to publishing as an illegal business activity. The vague clause of “other activities” in Article 225(3) of the law gives authorities the discretion to punish undesirable behavior as defined in interpretations issued by the SPC. To coordinate with the central government to suppress unauthorized publishing following a series of administrative notices issued between 1994 and 1997, the SPC issued a judicial interpretation in December 1998 making illegal publishing criminally punishable under “other illegal business activities.” The interpretation extended criminal liabilities to violators of administrative regulations, allowing authorities to criminalize virtually any unfavorable activity under the guise of disrupting the “market order.”
In the case of Christian bookstores, illegal business activity is disguised as an economic crime that is used to legitimize criminal punishments against religious groups and private individuals operating outside of the state’s control. In the case of Li Dongzhe and the partial-named duo in Shenzhen, all three individuals were connected to registered churches, but that status alone did not protect them from being punished for distributing unlicensed religious materials. While China rebukes criticisms of its religious affairs by stating that its citizens enjoy freedom of religion in accordance with the law, the charge of illegal business activity clearly works alongside the more overtly repressive crimes such as “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.”
Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has recorded information on over 1,500 Christians who have been detained or sentenced for either illegal business activity or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law since 1997. Most recently, the Chuxiong Municipality People’s Court in Yunnan tried seven Christians for organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law on April 27 and 28, 2018. The procuratorate accused the Christians of setting up an illegal printing shop in Chuxioing and reading illegal religious books, among other offenses.