Online bookseller Chen Yu of Xiaomai (Wheat) Bookstore in Linhai, Zhejiang province, has lost his appeal against the seven-year prison sentence and fine of 200,000 yuan (approximately €27,700) imposed in 2020 for “illegal business operation”. The verdict was announced on 7 January.
The appeal hearing began at the end of 2021 at Taizhou City Intermediate People’s Court in Zhejiang province, having been postponed several times in 2021 because of Covid-19. Chen Yu’s parents and his lawyer Deng Qinggao attended, and China Aid reported that they provided sufficient evidence to prove excessive punishment for the first trial and were optimistic about the appeal. The court dismissed the appeal and upheld the sentence, however, and Chen Yu remains in Linhai City Detention Centre, where he has been held since September 2019.
His parents were reportedly “disillusioned and outraged” after hearing the verdict, but his mother Zheng Jinmei (pictured) attended a prayer meeting next morning and led others in prayer for her son, for other imprisoned Christians and for the authorities. She reportedly promised that she and her husband would not waste time indulging in self-pity but rather would depend on God and be strong and joyful.
In a letter received by Chen Yu’s parents on 10 December 2021, he wrote: “Father and mother, you have to be strong and joyful, live every day to the fullest. As the date for the second trial approaches, my heart is unexpectedly filled with peace. In the past two years, what have I lost? I temporarily lost the times with my family, but I did not lose love for my family; I temporarily lost my freedom, but I did not lose the freedom of thought; I temporarily lost my Sundays, but I did not lose my faith.”
The authorities detained Chen Yu, also known as Zhang Xiaomai, on 11 September 2019 for “illegally selling foreign-published religious materials” and officially arrested him on 18 Oct 2019. His bookshop (logo pictured) had sold more than 20,000 books (mostly Bibles and other Christian books) through Weidian, a Chinese e-commerce platform. Police used the bookshop’s records to contact buyers across China and more than eight hundred books were confiscated.
On 27 September 2020, after Chen Yu had spent nearly a year in prison, Linhai People’s Court sentenced him to seven years in prison and a fine of 200,000 yuan on the charge of “illegal business operation”. The government confiscated his mobile phone and ordered Linhai City Public Security Bureau to destroy 12,864 books seized from the bookshop. His lawyer submitted an appeal to the Taizhou Intermediate People’s Court.
Bitter Winter reported that police were enraged by the fact that Chen Yu sold thousands of copies of the book Transformation of the Gospel by Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church, who is serving a nine-year prison sentence. During the nationwide investigation, officials demanded that customers who had purchased copies of “Transformation of the Gospel” return them.
Bitter Winter commented, “Not coincidentally, it was when the trial against Pastor Wang Yi was being prepared that bookseller Chen Yu was arrested. The prosecutor characterised Chen’s bookselling operation as an ‘anti-Chinese conspiracy,’ because some of the Bibles and books he sold were printed in Taiwan and the United States, and claimed that Chen had more than 10,000 customers.”
Parents in poor health
Chen Yu’s mother and father are in their sixties – they will be 70 and 75 respectively by the time their son is released from prison – and each has suffered health issues since his arrest. His mother had a polyp removed from her stomach and a cyst was discovered in her kidneys, while his father was diagnosed with cancer and has undergone several surgeries followed by chemotherapy, which has reportedly left him in a weakened state. He became a Christian during his cancer treatment.
“Harsh, disproportionate, outrageous”
On 22 December 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom published a brief report titled “USCIRF Condemns Harsh Sentence for Christian Bookseller Chen Yu” in which USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer stated, “The seven-year sentence for Christian bookseller Chen Yu is extremely disproportionate and outrageous. It further shows that the Chinese Communist government is becoming increasingly hostile toward Christianity.”
USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel added, “Chen Yu’s sentence is not only disproportionate to his alleged crime – it is also yet another flagrant assault on religion by the Chinese government.”
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress suggests that Chen Yu’s harsh sentence may be the Chinese government’s attempt to deter others from selling Christian books, and notes that most sellers of foreign-published books in China receive a smaller fine or jail sentence and that those selling Christian works in particular have been increasingly targeted.
China Aid reports that the Chinese government has tightened its control over Christian publications so that Christians living in mainland China have no access to new books. Reflecting this, several other Christian booksellers and publishers in China besides Chen Yu have received prison sentences and large fines for “illegal business operation” in the past year.
In July 2021, Fu Xuanjuan of Shenzhen City Tree Life Technology Development Company was sentenced to six years in prison and fined for selling Bible players, while her husband Deng Tianyong and their colleague Feng Qunhao were given prison sentences of three years and two and a half years respectively. They lost their appeal in December.
In August 2021, Christian printers Chang Yuchun and Li Chenhui were sentenced to seven years each in prison and fined. They lost their appeal in November.
(Bitter Winter, China Aid, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, International Christian Concern, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Photo of Chen Yu: Tom Lantos Commission)