China’s new internet regulations went into effect March 1, laying out broad restrictions on religious communication, teaching, and evangelism.
The new rules put into writing unofficial penalties that some Christians already faced for their online activity, so Chinese believers aren’t sure how the rules will be implemented and how much it could hamper missions.
The regulations were announced at the end of last year by China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) and allow only religious groups with government approval to share information on the internet. According to the new Measures on the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services:
Organizations and individuals must not proselytize online and must not carry out religious education or training, publish preaching, or repost or link to related content; must not organize the carrying out of religious activities online; and must not broadcast religious rites … through means such as text, images, audio, or video either live or in recordings.
On February 28, the Chinese government issued a press release answering questions about the new regulation, stating the government “will have close and thorough cooperation to ensure the implementation of the measures.”
How will the implementation of these new measures affect the use of the internet for evangelism and mission by Chinese Christians? Will Christians in China no longer be able to do anything online? As the new measures come into force during the ongoing pandemic, where will the internet mission of Chinese churches in China and overseas now go?
CT Asia editor Sean Cheng interviewed several Chinese pastors and Christians (for security reasons, the names of Christians in China are pseudonyms), including:
- Jerry An, new media mission pastor and Chinese director of Reframe Ministries in Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Eva Xu, member of an evangelical church in Los Angeles who has a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary
- Shi Ming, pastor of a church in China who has an M.Div from an American seminary
- Sean Lu, youth pastor of a church in China, now studying for a PhD in theology in the US
- Zhu Yalun, pastor of a church in China who has an M.Div from a Korean seminary
- Lynn Han, member of a Chinese church in Tokyo and host of a Christian WeChat group
- Zhang Qiang, big data expert and veteran media worker who lives in China
CT: How do you think the regulations will affect Chinese Christians’ use of the internet for evangelism and mission?
Shi: First, these are just “measures,” which, in essence, authorize the government to carry out certain operations and can be used as a management tool. They may claim to have the force of law, but they do not have the same degree of binding power of a law.
Second, these measures are not much more than the practices that already existed (e.g., deleting posts, blocking social media accounts, public security authorities summoning violators for admonishment, or even suing them for the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”). In other words, the measures merely fix on paper some exemplary practices that have already existed, in order to authorize and legitimize the government agents to do these things. This is not an overnight escalation of strict control.
Third, I don’t think this will have much impact on Chinese Christians’ use of the internet for evangelism and mission. Zoom meetings may be disrupted, and WeChat public accounts may be blocked, but these have always been the possibilities.
The only impact that is certain is that some Chinese Christians will stop their ministry out of fear. But Christians should not dance to the baton of such regulations in how we serve God and people. We should do everything we can to be faithful stewards of God’s resources until God takes them back.
Zhu: The impact remains to be seen, as it depends on the actual implementation. There has always been room for ambiguity in Chinese regulations, and the authorities will adjust the intensity and scope of implementation depending on the situation. And being restricted on WeChat may not be a bad thing. Too many Chinese today (including Christians) rely too much on WeChat, which has become the main means for many to obtain information, and that in itself is unhealthy. WeChat is full of misinformation and twisted value.
Han: The impact of the new regulations can already be seen on WeChat. Christians are afraid to forward Bible-related audio, pictures, and text, and many evangelical WeChat public accounts have been deleted. Words like Jesus, Jehovah, and amen cannot be written out and have to be replaced with pinyin abbrevations (e.g., “JD” for Christ and “JDT” for Christian). Brothers and sisters in Japan have gradually moved to social media apps outside China (such as Line).
An: The intimidating effect of the regulation has already been seen, and many Christians have become more cautious in their communication on the internet or have used riddle-like codes for words that sound religious.
The government’s control over the speech of all sectors of society, not just Christianity, is unprecedented. And in spite of this high degree of control, the Xuzhou chained mother incident has created an unprecedented tsunami of public opinion, with many deleted posts gaining more attention and spreading more widely after being reposted outside China. This once again proves the subversive nature of the new media compared to the traditional communication model.
I am optimistic that after a short period of recession, the new regulations will inspire Chinese Christians to value internet ministry more and to use the new technologies more creatively and with a greater sense of mission.
Lu: The church must prepare for the worst and respond for the best. If, as the authorities say in the press release, the government will “ensure that the measures are implemented,” this is likely to have a big impact on the government’s goal of “de-religionizing the internet.” Of course, this is only relative because it is impossible to eradicate religious contents in an absolute sense.
If, as the authorities expect, cyberspace will no longer be a “special zone for religious activities” or an “enclave for religious ideas,” then the internet will become a veritable mission field. It will be a challenging mission and spiritual warfare, just like any offline mission field where people are hostile to the gospel. We must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to meet the challenges and to plough the frozen ground and sow.
CT: How can Chinese Christians continue online ministry after March 1? What kind of adjustments will they need to make?
Xu: Actually, Bible study meetings, theology lectures, and even online worship can still be done using Zoom. The only difference is that in the past the Zoom login information was usually posted in the WeChat groups, but now we are more concerned about security, so we use other methods to notify participants.
A few adjustments are still needed, such as avoiding the use of sensitive words that can easily trigger censorship. Christians are called to be both innocent as doves and shrewd as snakes (Matt. 10:16). When WeChat doesn’t work, more phone calls can be made to reach out to the seekers, and home visits can be a better option when the pandemic subsides.
Shi: I don’t think we need to make many adjustments because we are not suddenly in a “bitter winter” of the internet. We should continue to do what we have been doing until we are blocked, removed, or the tools are no longer available.
I want to say to Chinese Christians overseas that you are in a special position. You have to use software programs, platforms, or resources from China, but you are not bound or governed by the laws of China.
And these software programs, platforms, and resources have a desire to enter the global market. I think God has given you a special status for “such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) to sue or protest these software and platforms in your own country for their infringements on freedom of speech, to reduce their influence and market share in the diaspora Chinese communities. Although this is not enough to change many things, perhaps God can use your present status to make an impact through such actions.
Zhu: I think what Chinese Christians need most now is to learn to circumvent the GFW (Great Firewall) using VPN and reduce our dependence on WeChat.
Break out of the wall, and the truth will set us free, and things will be much easier in the future: Churches or organizations that can afford it can set up their websites on off-GFW servers; Christian public accounts can move their platforms to uncensored social media (such as Telegram); and Christian individuals can also use social media outside the GFW. Telegram is highly recommended. After the past few years of trial and error, we think it is a very good one-stop platform that can completely replace WeChat in terms of functionality.
Lu: The fact that this unjust law is coming into effect does not mean that the Chinese church should retreat from cyberspace altogether or silence itself. Both individual believers and the church community need more courage, wisdom, and creativity from God to identify and seize new opportunities.
Churches and missions need to equip and send well-trained “internet missionaries” into this new mission field and spiritual battlefield in a more targeted and strategic manner. At the same time, we need to create the “new wineskins” of symbols, language, metaphors, and stories to carry the “old wine” of the gospel (Mark 2:22) in the face of an increasingly narrow public space and a rapidly changing online culture.
The Chinese church needs to create our own Narnia and Lord of the Rings by our own C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. (For example, can Chinese Christian writers create literary works based on Chinese mythology that do not have Christian “sensitive words” but are creative and spiritually profound in carrying the gospel message?)
An: From a personal perspective, tighter controls may prompt us to live out our faith not just by talking about it, but by living it out. We as individuals sharing the gospel on new media should pay more attention to relationship building and whether what we share in our circle of social media friends has the fruit of the Spirit and can exude the aroma of Christ.
Organizations and churches need to adjust their strategies to respond (for examples, transitioning to platforms outside the GFW or sharing the gospel with more creativity). In the “bitter winter,” everything is still growing, and it is also a season for us internet missionaries to work hard and wait patiently.
Zhang: Internet mission is a window into the converging interactions of technology and culture opened in the first two decades of the 21st century with globalization. Twenty years later, the world is not more tolerant but more polarized, not more united but more divided because of the internet connections.
The gospel can work through economic, demographic, technological, political, legal, and educational changes; only the effects may not be immediately apparent. The seeds sown in the past 20 years of internet mission will grow to be visible in the next 20 years. We need to pay attention to the changing seasons of people, cultures, and hearts.
This new season of authentic, community-focused, local, and deeper human engagement needs the truth of life to be truly understood and lived out by the believers, not just spoken with keyboards and screens.
CT: What have been the challenges and opportunities for online ministry during the pandemic? What hope do you have for the future?
Xu: The biggest challenge to evangelism from the pandemic is the reduction of face-to-face opportunities. There are fewer outreach activities, such as basketball or ping-pong, arts and crafts, etc. The seekers don’t always watch the videos or audio, or read the articles we forward, and they don’t always answer the phone.
But the pandemic has forced people stay at home, and now there’s time for people to be willing to read something more profound, or to consider questions about life, death, and eternity. Christian online seminars and books that discuss how to deal with personal relationships are currently more suitable to recommend to friends, family, and colleagues.
Han: The pandemic has restricted Christians from going out, but it has increased the time we all have to communicate on the internet. We currently have two to three hundred brothers and sisters living in Japan, China, the US, Canada, and Europe reading three chapters of the Bible a day together in a WeChat group.
Half of us have been faithfully punching in daily for two years already, and there is a regular weekly Bible study on Zoom. Having more time to study God’s Word in depth has been a great joy shared by all and has been very helpful in overcoming the anxiety caused by the pandemic.
Zhang: The pandemic brought enormous anxiety even to healthy people, not to mention those who already had depression. It also brought about a backlash against small-circle mentality and echo chambers. This also reminds us that internet missions need to “become flesh” and move from symbolic communication to experiential, real-life scenarios. Christians with mature spiritual lives can serve this generation through professional service in their own workplace, creating new opportunities to build relationships with people and preach the gospel of Christ.
An: The pandemic has forced all churches to go online, and internet ministry has received unprecedented attention. Many churches and Christians have begun to actively explore church development and internet ministry in the “new normal” of the post-pandemic era.
But there is also backward thinking, superficiality, jealousy, and self-boasting. In the past five years, we at Reframe Ministries have conducted extensive surveys and analysis of active Christian WeChat public accounts and found that Christian public accounts as a whole show a phenomenon of “bad money driving out good money,” with for-profit marketing accounts and fake news proliferating, and a general lack of public concern and the ability to engage in public dialogue.
During the past two US elections, many Christians’ social media contributed to the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories and lost their Christian witness. This shows that the Chinese church has long lacked a deep understanding of media and new media as well as profound and mature research of the church’s social engagement and public theology. We still have a lot to do to catch up.
Shi: Internet ministry needs to lead the targeted people to the local church, to real and personal connections. It can also lead to fantasy, deception, and self-gratification. An internet celebrity, writer, or host engaged in internet ministry is likely to over-exalt himself because of his interaction with his fans or listeners.
What he hears from his followers will reinforce his self-perception and eventually, although he still goes to church, his true identity will actually be on the internet. This is very dangerous and harmful to both himself and his followers.
I especially hope that those involved in online evangelism will view their endeavor properly and see it as a resource that God has given in this age, but not as a substitute for Bible reading, prayer, and participation in the local church.