Monday, May 17, 2021

Hefty Prison Sentences for Selling Audio Bibles

 

A selection of audio Bibles currently available on Taobao. Image credit: Taobao.com 

Dui Hua’s research into court judgments found that four Christians who sold USB flash drives containing encrypted sermons were sentenced to two to six years in prison in Henan Province on December 2, 2020. Three of them were convicted of illegal business activity and another of “concealing crime-related income.” Their trial was concluded just a few days before overseas Christian groups reported another illegal business activity case in Shenzhen where five Christians were facing trial for selling audio Bibles amid China’s campaign to “eradicate pornography and illegal publications.”

In April 2018, China’s popular online retailers including JD.com, Tabao, and Amazon.cn began pulling Bibles from their stores. Although the Bibles are still printed in China, they are legally available only at state-sanctioned church bookstores and cannot be sold through normal commercial channels. Individuals who breach the rules to sell the Bibles online or in physical bookstores risk being charged with illegal business activity under Article 225 of the Criminal Law.

New rules aim to restrict the circulation of religious materials. State control has extended to electronic devices containing religious content not censored by the state. Bible audio players have gained popularity because they are easy to use, especially among the elderly, the illiterate, and those who are visually impaired. Apart from Bible verses, these electronic players are also loaded with sermons, hymns, and other religious content. Such devices were once widely available on China’s largest online commercial sites.

A version of an audio Bible previously available on Taobao, designed for and marketed to elderly customers. Image credit: Taobao

Four of five Christians facing trial in Shenzhen are employees of the Shenzhen Tree of Life Culture Communication Company, which was established in April 2011 to produce Bible audio players. The company did not run into any legal trouble until the four employees were detained for illegal business activity in July 2020. The trial outcome remains unclear, but available sources show that prosecutors recommended that the court sentence Fu Xuanjuan (傅炫娟), owner of the Shenzhen company, to five years’ imprisonment, and the other three staffers to 18 months to three years.

Unbeknownst to the outside world, the four sentenced in Henan were also related to the same Shenzhen company. The judgment stated that from June-August 2018, Li Junke (李君科) entrusted the Shenzhen company to produce encrypted USB flash drives loaded with sermons by Li and another defendant Feng Fang (冯芳). During this period, they were said to have made an illegal profit of RMB8,000 from the sale of the encrypted USB flash drives to other Christians through WeChat friend groups.

Li explored ways to reduce expenses so that he could donate more money to help the elderly and poor families. Instead of outsourcing to the Shenzhen company, he started to produce his own audio Bibles. First, he procured 1,922 blank USB flash drives from a computer wholesaler in his home province of Shaanxi. Additionally, he asked the third defendant, Zhang Haohao (张好好), to encrypt the audio Bibles after she taught herself encryption. The fourth defendant Wang Xuefen (王雪粉) was in charge of promoting the audio Bibles primarily using WeChat and mailing them out. From January 31, 2019, to June 13, 2019, they  collected illegal revenue of RMB110,062 from the sale of 639 audio Bibles. After deducting the procurement cost of the 639 USB flash drives, the illegal profit amounted to RMB93,448.

Li, regarded as the principal offender in the case, received the lengthiest prison sentence among the defendants—six years. The court found that the sale constituted a “particularly grave circumstance,” citing Article 12 of the 1998 judicial interpretation concerning the hearings of illegal publications issued by the Supreme People’s Court. The article states that the circumstances are “particularly grave” where the profit made by an individual from illegal business activities exceeds RMB100,000. The court held that his total profit comprised RMB93,448 from the sale of 639 USB flash drives and RMB8,000 from the sale of USB flash drives manufactured by the Shenzhen company. The total profit amounted to RMB101,448, making Li’s profit barely exceed the “particularly grave circumstance” threshold.

Li’s prison sentence could have been shorter had the court considered deducting the mailing cost of the 639 USB flash drives. Each of the USB flash drives was mailed at the cost of RMB10. His profit would then have been reduced by RMB6,390 to RMB95,058, just below the "particularly grave circumstance” threshold. This was exactly what Li argued in his defense to mitigate his sentence during the trial. The court refused to accept his defense and instead determined the mailing cost to be part of operation costs for the illegal business activities, although it did deduct the procurement cost of the USB flash drives when calculating the profit. 

The two other defendants, Zhang and Wang, were also convicted of illegal business activity. They were sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively. Feng was convicted of a different crime of “concealing crime-related income” and is now serving her three years’ imprisonment sentence.

Since China began banning online Bible sales in April 2018, Dui Hua’s research into court websites has found 11 court judgments involving 54 defendants who were convicted for illegally selling Christian books and/or audio Bibles. Among them, 27 received suspended sentences and the prison sentence given to Li was the lengthiest. Li is scheduled for release from prison on June 14, 2025.

The offence of illegal business activity has typically been applied to those who make a profit to support their churches. However, the standard of conviction does not necessarily require an intent to establish a profitable business. Precedents suggest that Christians can receive prison sentences for printing and giving away religious texts for free. All these indicate the worsening state of religious freedom in China: economic crimes like illegal business activity provide a pretense to suppress religious activities and legitimize criminal punishments against religious groups and private individuals operating beyond the state’s control.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Transparency in Inciting Splittism Trials

 

A picture of the town of Ganzi in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in western Sichuan Province, China, taken in 2005. Image credit: Colegota / CC BY-SA 2.5 ES

China’s Fifth Judicial Reform Plan Outline in 2019 committed itself to an “open, dynamic, transparent, convenient sunshine judicial system.” Although much progress has been made in the number of court rulings and judgments posted online, the level of transparency varies by case type, crime, and region. Criminal cases classified as endangering state security (ESS) are among the least transparent.

Part of this is because judges frequently exercise their discretion to decide what information, including rulings and judgments, to publish. They may also conceal information about cases they deem “inappropriate for posting.” In regions rocked by incidents of ethnic unrest, accessing information about ESS cases is considered difficult or even impossible at times due to media blackouts which occur periodically following violent clashes with Han Chinese. 

While this presumption about judicial transparency holds true in Xinjiang, it does not accurately reflect the availability of Chinese government sources with regard to ethnic minority prisoners who are convicted of political crimes in the Tibetan regions outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Han-majority provinces.

Despite being a restive region, Ganzi, or Garze, a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture occupying the western arm of Sichuan Province, is the top region in all of China with the highest number of publicly disclosed ESS court rulings and judgments. In Ganzi, 26 of the 28 publicly disclosed ESS cases concerned the crime of inciting splittism (煽动分裂国家罪). Dui Hua previously reported that the Ganzi Intermediate People’s Court convicted nine Tibetans of inciting splittism between June and August 2020. In the last four months of 2020 the same court released five more judgments involving six defendants who were tried for the same crime.

Table 1. ESS Rulings Disclosed on China Judgements Online (as of April 30, 2021)

Aba, also known as Ngaba, similarly maintains a high level of transparency notwithstanding an astonishing number of self-immolation protests which occurred in the prefecture between 2012 and 2017. This Tibetan prefecture in northwestern Sichuan is ranked third in Table 1, with 20 ESS rulings and judgments disclosed on China Judgements Online. Thirteen of them were trials of inciting splittism. In 2020 alone, eight judgments were posted online by the Ganzi Intermediate People’s Court. 

Dui Hua previously reported that Xinjiang makes up the majority of China’s ESS cases (see Court Statistics on Splittism and Inciting Splittism, Part II: Uyghurs and Tibetans for a detailed analysis). The Chinese government has made an apparent attempt to obfuscate information in the autonomous region. At the time of writing, none of the ESS rulings and judgments on China Judgements Online were disclosed in Xinjiang. A small number of Xinjiang ESS court judgments Dui Hua unearthed earlier from court websites have since been taken down.

Table 2. A list of inciting splittism cases in Ganzi and Aba posted on China Judgements Online after August 31, 2020

Political Prisoner Database

The names of political prisoners convicted of inciting splittism can also be found in other open-source materials. In its “official registry,” Dui Hua’s restricted-access Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on 250 individuals who were tried nationwide for inciting splittism. The cases referred to here were collected from official sources including court judgments and rulings, state-run news media reports, judicial annals available in libraries and electronic yearbooks, and responses provided to Dui Hua by Chinese interlocutors.

Access to information in Xinjiang is far more restricted than in Tibetan regions. Table 3 shows that about 60 percent of people tried for inciting splittism in the official registry are in the Tibetan plateau, compared to only 38 people, or 17 percent, in the entire Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) including It is worth noting that the eight percent remainder also involved Uyghurs, they were scattered across Han-majority provinces, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Henan, Liaoning, and Jilin also involved Uyghurs.

Table 3. Regional breakdown of inciting splittism trials with information in Dui Hua's Official Registry

Ganzi comes out on top of all regions in Table 4; 68 prisoners convicted of inciting splittism are recorded in the official registry of the PPDB. The number is 11 times higher than that of Kashgar, Xinjiang, with records in the PPDB. The contrast is striking when we factor in a 2009 Chinese court report, which stated that more than 60 percent of Xinjiang’s ESS cases were tried in Kashgar. The paucity of prisoner information in the Uyghur prefecture has left the identities, acts, and fates of many of those convicted of inciting splittism unknown.

Labelled “the self-immolation capital” by The New York Times, Aba comes as a distant second in Table 4. The latest Tibetan to set himself ablaze, in November 2019, occurred in Aba.

Aba is followed by Huangnan, a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai. It was another site of self-immolations and clashes between monks and Chinese security forces similar to Ganzi and Aba from 2012-2017.

Table 4. Top three regions with information of inciting splittism trials in PPDB Official Registry

In Qinghai, people tried for inciting splittism are not exclusively Tibetans. According to court judgments posted online, three ethnic Mongols were sentenced to nine to ten years in prison in the provincial capital of Xining in October 2008. Their imprisonment was likely related to the unrest in Tibet. Originally from Huangnan, they were detained in April 2008, just a month after the unrest in Lhasa set in motion a series of protests and demonstrations across the Tibetan plateau.

Outside of Xinjiang

Official information about Uyghur political cases appears more accessible outside of Xinjiang, at least for a brief period. Table 5 shows a breakdown of inciting splittism trials in the official registry of the PPDB. Of the 19 prisoners who were tried for inciting splittism in Han-majority provinces, all but one were Uyghurs.

Table 5. Number of inciting splittism trials in Han-majority provinces with information in PPDB Official Registry

Except for the three cases concluded in Shanghai in 2003, other cases in Table 5 were uncovered from court documents which were posted online between 2014 and 2016. Although the names of defendants were occasionally redacted or obscured, fewer ESS rulings and judgments at the time were classified as “unsuitable for posting.” These uncensored court judgments showed that most Uyghur defendants belonged to the “post-90s generation’ and were in their early twenties at the time of sentencing. Common allegations against them included using the internet to disseminate information about “East Turkestan” and the “Holy War.”

Some of the case highlights are:
  1. Rozi Wulayimu, born in 1985, was a cake seller who traveled back and forth to Guangzhou from Yiwu, Zhejiang, prior to detention in January 2015. While in Yiwu, he became acquainted with what prosecutors called a Uyghur “religious extremist” (zongjiao jiduan fenzi 宗教极端分子). According to the judgment, the “religious extremist” called the ban on veils and beards in Xinjiang a repression of Islam. The “religious extremist” bought Rozi a cellphone. It was preinstalled with Voxer, an app best known for walkie-talkie messaging, and another app with access to IRIB World Service, Iran’s international broadcasting radio network.

    Rozi did not use the preinstalled apps until after he moved back to Guangzhou in late 2014. IRIB World Service allegedly contained articles and images of violence, “East Turkestan,” and the “Holy War.” This browsing history became evidence of him inciting others to split China. Additionally, Rozi used Voxer to contact the “religious extremist,” who shared the idea of them illicitly going overseas. Uyghurs could not legally exit China because of tight travel restrictions placed on them, said Rozi during the trial. Rozi also expressed having a strong impulse to leave China because he was deeply moved by the contents of IRIB World Service. However, he dismissed this idea as he could not bear to leave his parents behind in China.

    In July 2016, Rozi was sentenced to two years in prison by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. Rozi was released from prison in January 2017, having already spent 17 months in custody prior to conviction.

  2. A Uyghur farmer, whose name was redacted in the judgment, was sentenced to two years in prison in Nanjing on July 17, 2015. He signed in to his QQ account with his cellphone and from cybercafes, where he disseminated audio and video messages of “religious extremism, the Holy War, and ethnic hatred.” Additionally, he was accused of sharing links to Turkistan Times, a multilingual news website covering news about Xinjiang.

  3. Cases are also documented in China’s northeast provinces. Eli Exmet studied at Changchun’s Northeast Normal University. The then-25-year-old student was sentenced to eight years in prison in October 2014. Prosecutors accused him of teaching private religious classes to Uyghurs studying there. In the classes, he raised funds from attendees to buy tablets and removable storage to use as teaching tools and explained why he supported the “Holy War” and “East Turkestan” with information he downloaded and copied from e-books and online videos.

    Another defendant, Metabdulla Iminniyaz, born in 1992, was sentenced to six years in prison. He was in charge of lecturing on Arabic-language videos. According to the judgment, he expressed the idea of “driving away all bad Han Chinese in Xinjiang” in his classes.

  4. Born in 1993, a Uyghur barbeque shop worker was sentenced to three years in prison in Dalian in February 2016. His name was redacted in the judgment. He was accused of uploading images from 2013-2014 containing violence and religious extremism to his personal cloud storage. Since he did not set a passcode to restrict access, the images were seen by many of the over 200 people on his contact list. Among the images was a map of China separating Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang from Chinese territory. Xinjiang was also labelled “East Turkestan” and painted blue with a white crescent flag.

The empirical data presented in this post indicated a varying level of judicial transparency concerning the trials of inciting splittism. While Tibetans and Uyghurs are both disproportionately represented in such trials, the Chinese government appears more willing to disclose information about Tibetans than Uyghurs. That said, courts in Aba, Ganzi, Huangnan, and other Tibetan regions are far from genuinely transparent. The judgments which have thus far been posted online there merely contain defendants’ names, courts, and sentence dates. Information about their sentences, whereabouts, and health status remains concealed.

As mentioned earlier, the Uyghur cases outside of Xinjiang were concluded in 2014-2016, but Dui Hua is unable to find additional cases from Chinese government sources published over the past four years. The same practice of concealing information in publicly disclosed court rulings and judgments has also extended to cases of Han Chinese convicted of ESS crimes. As such, the opacity of ESS cases is suggestive of an overall downward trend in judicial transparency. ESS cases are by nature sensitive, but the strategic use of “discretion” by judges can serve as a smoke screen for crimes to be reclassified and charges shuffled. As long as this happens, China’s stated intentions of having a dynamic and transparent justice system will be out of reach.