The Chinese Supreme People's Court building in Beijing.
Beijing CNN  — 

A Chinese novelist has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for writing and distributing homoerotic novels, provoking widespread debate online over the severity of her sentence.

The female writer, surnamed Liu, but more commonly known by her internet pseudonym Tianyi, was arrested in 2017 following the success of her novel “Occupy,” according to reports in Chinese state media.

The book was described by police in East China’s Anhui Province as depicting “obscene sexual behavior between males” set to themes of “violence, abuse and humiliation.”

Despite being sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court in the city of Wuhu on October 31, Liu’s case was brought only recently to nationwide attention after being shared widely online.

The popularity of homoerotic fiction, dubbed “boys love,” has soared in recent years in China, where a booming cottage industry of self-published authors churn out hundreds of new titles each month.

Such is the success of the genre, that several titles have been adapted into film, including last year’s popular web series “Guardian.” Recently, Chinese internet giant Tencent also looked to capitalize on the trend with the announcement it had acquired two popular titles for adaption online.

Though most titles only hint at homosexual relations and instead feature “bromances,” others are more explicit, risking the ire of the country’s censors.

Liu was said to have made more than 150,000 yuan ($21,624) through the sale of “Occupy” and other explicit novels.

The production and sale of pornography remains strictly prohibited in China. However, the harsh punishment given to Liu has caused outrage among social media users, many of whom have expressed anger at the apparent discrepancy between her sentence and those given to violent criminals, pointing out that under Chinese criminal law, rapists are liable to receive between three to 10 years.

As of Monday, there were more than 1.7 million posts using the hashtag #Tianyi on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, with the majority of users coming to Liu’s defense.

“The author deserves sympathy,” posted Li Yinhe, a renowned Chinese sexologist and sociologist, who has more than two million followers on Weibo. “She did violate criminal law, but even a one-year sentence is too much, not to mention 10 years.”

Many users questioned the country’s conservative attitude and asked why the government felt the need to police people’s private lives.

“This sentence, even for me, who hasn’t read any of her works, feels not fair. The attitude of this country toward sex can be only described as ‘immature.’ (We) ask for commutation!”

Speaking to CNN, Deng Xueping, a lawyer at China’s Capital Equity Legal Group, said that the sentence was based on an outdated judicial interpretation of the country’s laws dating from 1998.

“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,” said Deng.

“But things have changed a lot in society … especially that the internet helps things spread faster than ever … That’s why I think it’s worth discussing if the sentence for the case is too heavy. The supreme court might need to reconsider the related judicial interpretation,” he added. “The punishments of the criminal law should be in proportion to the social impact of the crimes.”

Others attributed the judgment to latent prejudice. “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,” Lu Xiaoquan, a Beijing-based lawyer, was quoted by the Global Times.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, and was removed from the official list of mental illnesses a few years later. Activists and experts, however, have long argued that prejudices and discrimination – as well as periodic government crackdowns – persist.