A man in China’s Zhejiang Province has been sentenced to seven years in prison by the Linhai city court for his alleged “illegal” online selling of religious books that he imported from overseas.
Chen Yu was sentenced over his business operations on Sept. 27, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA). He was also fined 200,000 yuan ($29,450).
Chen sold about 770 different religion-related books and periodicals imported from the United States and Taiwan.
Chen is not the only one in trouble with the authorities; his customers have also reportedly been subject to investigation by local police. RFA reported that authorities tracked down Chen’s customers through the order information that they seized from Chen’s online store.
Those customers, who identified themselves as Christians from Shandong, Henan, and Zhejiang provinces, said that their homes were raided by the local police, who seized their religious books that are not approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“‘Wheat Study’ has been deemed as an anti-China force,” police said during the home searches, according to RFA. “Wheat Study” is the name of Chen’s online bookstore.
According to a notice from local authorities obtained by RFA, more than 10,000 suspected customers were interrogated by police.
One Christian, on condition of anonymity, expressed his disapproval of the court’s sentence for Chen. “It’s very unfair because Christians cause no disruption to society at all while operating such book stores,” he told RFA.
“It was easier years ago,” he added. “You could buy online Christian readings to your liking.
“Now, they are all banned. They’ll track you down if you leave any message. Basically, we don’t buy anything. I download electronic versions online because I know how to circumvent the Great Firewall,” he said, referring to the Chinese regime’s surveillance and censorship tool used to block Chinese access to targeted websites, particularly from pro-democracy countries.
Another Christian said he has become extremely cautious since government officials probed his purchases of religious books. To prevent his transactions from being monitored, the man deleted all his apps and contacts with religious ties from his cell phone, and left the religious online groups he was participating in on social media.
Zhang Jialin, a professor at the Department of Religion and Information Management of Aletheia University in Taiwan, told RFA that the latest court ruling was a shocking blow to religious freedom in China.
He said he had never heard of such severe punishment for the selling of an unapproved religious book, though such titles have long been deemed illegal by the CCP.
“Criminal penalties have been ticketed for similar incidents, but none of them have been so heavy-handed. Presumably, the local court did so to toe Xi Jinping’s religious policies,” Zhang added.
Campaign: ‘Sinicization’ of Religions
In 2014, scenes of churches across China having their crosses removed shocked many Christians in China and around the world. On Feb. 27 that year, for example, authorities in Yuhang district of Hangzhou city, Zhejiang Province, mobilized over 200 people and a crane to rapidly dismantle a cross on the Huanghu church within 20 minutes.
Then, at a United Front meeting held in Beijing May 18 to 20, 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping put forward for the first time the “sinicization” of religions. He outlined his policy to adapt religions—Christianity, Buddhism, and others—to the needs of the CCP’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Since then, reports grew nationwide of churches having their crosses forcibly removed by authorities.
This year, at least 250 crosses were removed from churches in Lu’an, Ma’anshan, and Huibei cities in Anhui province between January and April, according to data from Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights.
On April 1, local authorities in Anhui’s Fuyang city attempted to remove the cross of the 124-year-old Gulou Church. About 100 Christian believers showed up, attempting to stop the demolition.
The cross was eventually taken down at 5 a.m. the next morning.