BEIJING: Since the beginning of the year, China has intensified its crackdown on the sales and printing of religious publications aimed at what the country's ruling Communist Party says to "eradicate pornography and illegal publications".
In paper, the drive aims at censoring all "publications and information that weaken, distort, or negate the Party's leadership or China's Socialist system". This applies for the strict control of printing and copying services, online sales platforms, wholesale markets for publications and postal and logistics services.
However, in reality, Chinese authorities are abiding by the policy in the pretext of cracking down on religious liberties and dissent, according to a confidential document accessed by Bitter Winter, an online magazine based on religious liberty and human rights in China.
The document titled -- 'Special Campaign Plan for In-Depth Implementation of Eradicating Pornography and Illegal Publications to consolidate the frontier for 2019', was issued by a locality in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in April this year.
The document calls for "constantly blocking, investigating and dealing with" religious publications from abroad and printed materials that are smuggled, carried or mailed.
Also, packages' of courier and postal companies are subjected to intensive frisking by authorities which may include religious publications. The document also demands the registration of phone numbers and identifying information of the persons sending and receiving the packages.
Not only that, government officials are carrying out random inspections of those packages or disguise themselves as clients sending religious books to check whether the shopkeepers are abiding by the norms or not.
Non-approved Bibles, books on Islam or about Xinjiang and Tibet, and about South Korea Christianity, are key targets during inspections. Publications related to Falun Gong or The Church of Almighty God are banned from being mailed.
If these items are recovered, the courier-in charge faces a strict punishment -- from getting fired or being detained.
Recently, a house church preacher from the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian faced a similar ordeal when he came to a printing shop to order 170 commemorative albums for an anniversary of his church. The preacher wanted to gift it to the fellow believers in the church community.
However, the shopkeeper declined to take the preacher's order and apprised him of the government's crackdown activities and regular inspections by authorities. To print it, he had to change its religious-themed cover and remove all images of the cross and references to the Bible in the album's text.
The shopkeeper told the preacher to go to the local Bureau of Culture to apply for a permit to have his album printed, which is a very difficult task, considering the crackdown by authorities.
Later, the preacher had no option but to remove all religious content from the commemorative album and got it printed after several print shops refused to take his order.
"When policies call for strict measures over religion, every aspect is tightly controlled. This is occurring nationwide. It is the same for Buddhism and Taoism," the preacher said.
"In fact, it has always been like this. Even if we plan to do something small and simple, the government will first ask whose plan was this and then will try to find out if somebody 'behind the scenes' is financing it. They will also want to know if more than 100 people participate, suspecting that they have other aims. The government will think of many obstacles because it is afraid that we will practise our faith," he added.
Ever since the crackdown drive was launched, several incidents have taken place in various parts of China.
On July 9, a Three-Self Gospel Church in Fujian Province's Nanping city was slapped with an advance administrative penalty notice penalising its library for breaching the 'Regulations on the Administration of Publications' as the church did not possess a "publication business license".
Authorities confiscated fifteen publications and a fine of 10,000 yuan was imposed. Ultimately, the church gave the penalty as it had bought Bibles from an online store in February.
In December last year, a person-in-charge of a house church in Jiangxi province had ordered 20 Bibles by mail from a place of worship in another province. However, authorities tracked down the person who had shipped the Bibles and confiscated all of them.
"We received news that the government is revising the Bible, so we've tried to do everything possible to collect and store the original version," the person in- charge of the church said.
Last October, the China Buddhist Association chapter in Youxi County, under the jurisdiction of Fujian's Sanming city, ordered that Buddhist religious books should not be brought to China from abroad.
To check if the rule is being followed, inspection teams are carrying out random and impromptu checks of public places to look for Buddhist materials without official publication registration numbers and impose steep and disciplinary penalties if any are found.