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.