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China: Christians seize internet opportunities

Chinese Christians are sharing their faith on Weibo, China’s giant, state-regulated, social network – and some are beginning to challenge the censor ...

Chinese Christians are sharing their faith on Weibo, China’s giant, state-regulated, social network – and some are beginning to challenge the censor by speaking out against religious persecution.

When Christian band Rainbow Come appeared on China's equivalent of The X Factor, Christians turned to social networking to drum up votes for the band so their music could reach more Chinese.

Within a few days, thousands of votes had been posted for Rainbow Come, according to China’s Gospel Times, enough to propel them this month to a leading position in the seventh round of Chinese Dream on Zhejiang Television. Such is the power of social networking – even in China, which has officially banned Facebook and Twitter.

In the place of these established but unregulated sites, the Chinese authorities have permitted Weibos – microblogs. From its inception in 2009, China’s leading microblog company, Sina Weibo, now boasts 400 million users, and the number is rising. Rival companies also lay claim to hundreds of millions of subscribers.

According to the China Internet Network Information Centre, 40% of the population of China are now Internet users, and most of these are microbloggers. To put that in perspective, there are more microbloggers in China than the populations of Britain, Germany, France and the United States combined, by some margin.

Chinese Christians, too, are getting in on the act. Some are beginning to share their faith on Weibo and a few are reaching substantial audiences. According to the website Christians in China, one of the leading faith bloggers is Pan Shiy, a real estate billionaire who “frequently shares prayers on Sundays with his six million plus followers”. Christians in China claims "China's microblog has become the new frontier of China's Christian movement."

If so, how far will China’s cyber police permit that movement to stray from the official Party line? China’s Christians are starting to mobilise prayer, even to discuss religious freedoms. But on this monitored and regulated social network, would China’s ever-watchful authorities allow Christians to rally support against religious persecution in their own land? China still ranks among the top 50 worst persecutors of Christians in the annual World Watch List published by the Christian charity Open Doors. And China is well aware that social media was used to powerful effect to muster protest in the Arab Spring. Yet it permits these microblogs.

So how are Christians using Weibo to confront persecution? Norwegian-based religious liberty group Forum 18 notes that much of the discussion on persecution is in an historical context, or focuses on trouble overseas. In September, "an urgent call for prayer!" went out for Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was under sentence of death for apostasy in Teheran. That message was picked up and re-posted extensively. Pastor Nadarkhani was later released, but this month was brought back into custody.

But there also have been postings about the lack of religious freedom for Christians in China itself.

Weibo shot to prominence as a forum for citizen journalism after a train crash in 2011 killed 40 and injured 200 in Zhejiang province. The first news of the crash broke on Weibo, and it was footage on Weibo that exposed local officials trying literally to bury the evidence – by burying the actual train. It caused a furore.

Public anger boiled over when official directives attempting to gag and finesse reporting of the crash were posted online. The state-run Global Times described the local authorities’ handling of the crash as a “public relations disaster" – a disaster that came to light because of a wave of outrage in the Chinese social media.

The international news media picked up on this and on other Weibo exposés.

China watchers believe Weibo is tolerated because it enables central government to keep local corruption in check and provides a pressure-relief valve to vent public concern. It also allows the state to listen in to its citizens.

Unsurprisingly, Weibo is subject to censorship, though with a lighter touch than the rest of the Chinese media.

Forum 18’s verdict on Weibo is that while it is “advancing religious freedom in China to some extent . . . it is not yet (if it ever will be) an effective means for people to mobilise to actively defend their rights to freedom of religion or belief. For now, Chinese Weibo users will have to be content . . . to express their religious or non-religious beliefs publicly – which would have been unthinkable in China not very long ago.”

But hedging its bets, Forum 18 adds: “Weibo may become a vehicle for political change in China – or serve as a means by which the Communist Party remains in power.”

World Watch Monitor (Original source: Forum 18)

(Photo: Flickr/Julien Gong Min, used under a Creative Commons license)

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