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Chinese Author Sentenced to 10 Years In Prison For Book Featuring Gay Sex

A Chinese author has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for writing a book containing scenes of gay sex. Now authorities are facing a public outcry over the sentence, with observers particularly incensed that more violent crimes face far milder penalties.

Writing under the pen name Tianyi, the writer is a resident of Anhui Province in East China. According to unconfirmed social media posts, she was raised in a family that mistreated girls and was denied an education and forced to work in textile mills. Before she began writing, her mother took most of her income.

Authorities were alerted last year to Tianyi’s book Gongzhan, which translates as “takeover” or “to secure control.” The novel details an illicit romance between a teacher and student and includes graphic sex scenes.

Pornography is illegal in China, with heightened sentences depending on the volume of content distributed. In Tianyi’s case, over 7,000 books were sold on the shopping site Taobao, earning around 150,000 yuan or $22,000.

A 1998 law imposes harsher penalties for producers who sell over 5,000 copies or earn more than 10,000 yuan. In those cases, a minimum sentence of 10 years is required. Along with Tianyi, courts have sentenced four other people involved with the distribution of the book to between 10 months and 10 years in prison.

While the sentencing occurred in October, social media has only recently drawn attention to the case. Outcry has been strong, with many comparing the lengthy sentence to the country’s more lenient response when women are physically assaulted by men.

On Weibo, a Chinese analogue to Twitter, users shared their experiences with lenient sentencing for male attackers.

In recent years, ride-hailing drivers who sexually assaulted passengers were sentenced to between 10 months and three and a half years in prison. An official in Yunnan received a five-year sentence for kidnapping and raping a four-year-old girl in 2013. And in 2009, a man who beat his wife to death received a sentence of just six and a half years.

“When the number of copies exceeds 5,000, the case is deemed as a severe one. So the 10-year imprisonment is based on that,” attorney Deng Xueping told CNN. Xueping is among those pointing out that the 1998 law predates modern ebook distribution platforms, which change the ease with which banned material can be distributed.

“I think it’s worth discussing if the sentence for the case is too heavy,” Xueping told CNN. “The supreme court might need to reconsider the related judicial interpretation.”

That was echoed by sociologist Li Yinhe, who specializes in free speech and sexuality. “The author deserves sympathy,” Li wrote on Weibo. “Even a one-year sentence is too much, not to mention 10 years.”

Other observers suspect that cultural hostility to homosexuality might have contributed to the sentence.

“If judges think content related to homosexuality and indecency has a baneful impact on the society, they might choose a heavy sentence within the legal range,” lawyer Lu Xiaoquan told the state-owned website Global Times.

While homosexuality is legal in China, describing gay sex is still banned under the country’s anti-pornography law. Lingering homophobia makes any depiction of LGBTQ life and relationships rare, with censors often prohibiting queer content in films, on TV, and online. Homosexuality has remained a target of China’s Communist Party, even after the 1997 decriminalization.

Authorities have attempted multiple times to prevent Internet users from being able to access queer content. Online policies released in June of 2017 described homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behaviors” and described penalties for disseminating any LGBTQ content. Those measures are currently being challenged in court.

In April of 2018, Weibo announced that it would delete gay content from the service, before a widespread backlash forced them to change course, focusing instead on pornography.

In addition to censoring content, Chinese authorities have recently blocked LGBTQ conferences from taking place and allowed ex-gay abuse. Textbooks have claimed that homosexuality is a mental illness comparable to pedophilia.

Due in part to government hostility, a 2016 survey showed that only 5% of queer Chinese citizens are publicly out.

But despite that dangerous climate — or perhaps because of it — stories about hidden gay romances are popular among readers, particularly women known as “fǔ nǚ,” or in Japanese, “fujoshi.”

Stories with less erotic content have been adapted into feature films, including the web series Guardian — although in the adaptation, the main characters’ romance was changed to a friendship. Even with that change, Guardian was pulled from the streaming site Youku for “content adjustments.”

There’s no sign of an end to the government crackdown on LGBTQ content, with regulators recently increasing the bounty paid to citizens who report “illegal” publications. Tipsters can receive as much as $86,000. Other reports peg the figure at $118,000.

Adding to the danger for queer people in China is the country’s ongoing rollout of a “social credit” system. Under the system, each citizen is assigned a score based on their social reputation, with penalties for infractions like smoking in the wrong area or failing to pick up after your dog. People with low scores face severe limitations, and can be denied credit, prevented from traveling, and even have their faces displayed on electronic billboards near their house.

Tianyi has filed an appeal, and free speech advocates are closely watching the case.

As the case unfolds, China will continue to endure a painful tug-of-war between homophobic culture guardians and LGBTQ citizens. For now, authorities have a definite upper hand — but as outcry over extreme punishments grows louder, they may be forced to reconsider.

Tags: News, Politics
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