Law needs to change after jailing of author
- Beijing must adapt to the internet age and current standards of society as writer is sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for penning a gay novel
Censorship to shield children from harmful material and meet community standards tends to be more effective if it commands respect across a wide spectrum of society. To achieve this it must evolve over time to reflect changing norms. The internet era has made this more challenging for the arbiters of public morality and their punishments for material that crosses the boundaries.
A case in point is the erotic author jailed for more than 10 years on the mainland for writing and selling through the internet a novel about a love affair between a teacher and a student. The novel is said to include graphic depictions of male homosexual sex scenes. The sentence is slightly more than the 10-year minimum prescribed by the Supreme Court for the “especially serious circumstance” of selling more than 5,000 copies of pornographic books or making more than 10,000 yuan (HK$11,276) from their sale. The maximum is life imprisonment.
The author, named Liu but better known by her internet alias of Tianyi, sold 7,000 copies and made a profit of 150,000 yuan. The judicial interpretation therefore provides a clear basis for the punishment – except that it was issued 20 years ago, before the internet and social media took off.
The community standards it was reflecting then have clearly evolved. The interpretation has not kept up. As a result the sentence for producing and selling the books has, not surprisingly, sparked outrage. After all, under China’s criminal law, many rapists are only liable to serve between three and 10 years. As one commentator said: “It might have been difficult to sell 5,000 books in 1998 – there was no internet back then. Now it is almost effortless.” Another, Shanghai-based lawyer and former state prosecutor Deng Xueping, said the interpretation had lagged changes in a developing society. The harm of such books might not be as grave as legislators thought initially.
Indeed there seems to be a community consensus that the kind of offence committed by Liu is no longer a grave threat to public morality warranting severe, censorious punishment it was once seen to pose. The sentence therefore appears harsh and should prompt a review of the existing law to catch up with the internet age.