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ilkaydede/iStock and Mark Schiefelbein/AP

(ilkaydede/iStock and Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Snapshots of China

Suppressing religion online

A draft law threatens the future of Christian websites in China

I’ve written in the past about the plethora of Chinese Christian media online, providing Christians with video sermons, written testimonies, movie reviews, and in-depth theological articles. As long as these media outlets stay away from politics and breaking news, they’re allowed to publish content that enriches and informs their readers. Most post content on the ubiquitous Chinese social media app WeChat.

While working on the 2016 story “Peering into a fiery furnace,” I subscribed to several of the most well-known Christian WeChat channels, including Overseas Campus, (a video site), Church China, and Territory. Every day, my WeChat subscription feed filled with new stories with headlines like “Is assurance of salvation essential to our faith?” “Here are some problems with the theory of evolution,” and “God is starting a completely new season, repentance is key.”

The writers of these stories don’t have the same freedom Christians in the West have, yet they’ve been able to address otherwise taboo topics like porn addiction and depression, unpack complicated Scripture passages, counsel Christians dealing with difficult marriages and unmanageable children, and inspire readers with testimonies of how God rescues sinners. 

Yet upcoming regulations could mean the end of Christian media online: Last month, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs released a draft law that would restrict the types of religious information that can be posted online. It would ban videos of prayer, baptism, burning incense, or other religious activities, as well as online evangelism.

Religious media would need to register with the government, which requires applicants to be an organization “lawfully established” in China. This would exclude house churches and foreigners (including ministries based in Taiwan or Hong Kong) who run WeChat channels, according to a crowdsourced translation of the draft law’s text on China Law Translate. Provincial-level religious affairs departments would decide whether to approve or reject the applicants, and each license would be valid for three years.

Reasons the government could take away that license include using religion to “incite subversion of state sovereignty, to oppose the leadership of the Communist Party, … [and] to undermine national unity.” The draft law also said “undermining the peaceful relations between different religions” is also banned, which could mean that a Christian publication would not be allowed to point out the exclusivity of Christianity. The sites would also not be allowed to attract minors to a particular religion or recruit followers.

Only registered groups would be able to post sermons online. Sermons must be “conductive to social harmony, the progress of the times, and healthy civilization, leading religious citizens in proper thought and action.” Same with teaching: Only registered schools would be allowed to carry out religious education online, and all of their website participants must use their real name.

If the draft becomes law and authorities strictly enforce it, it would be a blow to vital resources for Christians. 


Censorship in journalism: 

What are the red lines that Chinese journalists don’t dare cross? China Digital Times translated an article that interviews 23 Chinese journalists to learn what it’s like to be a reporter in a country without press freedom. Here’s one telling quote: “It used to be that you’d go to the news scene, and the story might get banned two or three days later. Later on, you’d receive the censorship order en route to the scene, but you’d still do interviews, in case you could publish later. But now you don’t even bother going to the scene, because publishing is totally out of the question.”

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Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

The Sacred Heart Cathedral, or Shishi Catholic Church, in Guangzhou, China. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Snapshots of China

Rome meets Beijing

The Vatican’s new deal with China gives Communist leaders more control over Catholicism in the country

As the Chinese government demolishes crosses, closes unregistered churches, and controls religion more tightly than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, the Vatican has reached a provisional deal with Communist officials that could lead to the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the Catholic Church.

The Vatican announced Sept. 22 that the two sides have agreed on how to appoint bishops: Pope Francis agreed to recognize seven bishops appointed by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), and in exchange, the Vatican would have a say in how future bishops are chosen. (See this earlier China Snapshot for an explainer on China-Vatican relations.)

While the deal would give the pope authority in China for the first time, it would also give the Chinese government greater control of over Catholicism in China, as about half of the country’s 12 million Catholics currently worship in unregistered churches that have remained faithful to the pope. Now the government-sanctioned CPCA will have the backing of the pope, and the future of the underground churches is uncertain.

It’s also uncertain whether the pope or the Chinese government will have final say in choosing bishops, as the agreement has not been made public. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a lead negotiator for the Vatican, would not tell The New York Times whether the pope would have veto rights over appointments, only that “the Holy Father gets to say something about the appointment of bishops.”

The Communist Party kicked out the Apostolic Nunciature, which serves as the Vatican’s embassy, in 1951, and forced Catholics to either join the government-run CPCA or go to prison. Underground Catholic churches grew out of the persecution with their own bishops who were either confirmed by the pope or by older approved bishops.

Recent negotiations began in earnest in 2016 under Pope Francis, who has desired to repair ties with China. The seven illegitimate bishops were a sticking point in the negotiations: The CPCA chose its own bishops not sanctioned by Rome (some of the bishops had children or girlfriends). Those bishops were subsequently excommunicated from the Catholic Church because they didn’t operate under the authority of the pope.

In a sign of an impending deal, the Vatican asked two underground bishops to step down from their positions earlier this year in order to give way to the CPCA-chosen bishops of the same diocese. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters that the deal “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

Yet one bishop in China told the Catholic news agency AsiaNews that many of his parishioners are disappointed: “There is no trust in the Party, and we are worried about the Vatican’s scant knowledge regarding the Chinese Communist Party.”

In 2016 I spoke with former Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the deal. He criticized the idea of handing an atheist government the authority to choose priests: “How can they know who is fit for being a bishop?”

After the announcement of the preliminary deal, Zen had strong words. “The consequences will be tragic and long-lasting, not only for the church in China but for the whole church because it damages the credibility,” he told Reuters.

“They’re giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal.”

Banned Hong Kong political party:

For the first time since the 1997 handover, the Chinese government has banned a political party in Hong Kong, claiming its pro-independence stance could harm “national security.” Many fear that banning the Hong Kong National Party, which is largely inactive and represents a fringe idea, is just the first step in dismantling Hong Kong’s freedom of association.

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Associated Press

Youths wave copies of ‘The Thoughts of Mao Zedong’ and carry a poster of Karl Marx at a rally in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. (Associated Press)

Snapshots of China

Short stories of communism

Two collections of short fiction depict communist absurdities in China and North Korea

This summer, I’ve read two collections of short stories: The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by Chen Jo-hsi and The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi. The two books were written in different places and times, but both tell what it’s like for ordinary people to live under a communist regime.

Chen, the author of The Execution of Mayor Yin, is a Taiwanese native who studied in the United States, where she married a Chinese graduate student. They moved to mainland China in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the left after seven years: Chen wrote the eight stories between 1974 and 1976.

The author of The Accusation, on the other hand, is an anonymous dissident still living in North Korea. Bandi—the name means “firefly” in Korean—wrote stories depicting life under the totalitarian Kim regime between 1989 and 1995. The manuscript was smuggled out of the country in 2013 and published in 17 languages around the world.

Both Chen and Bandi capture the absurdity and contradiction of life under communist rule. They depict a world where one’s background determines his or her worth, where everyday relationships are strained with distrust and fear, and anyone—no matter their position—can fall out of favor with a wrong word, a wrong action, or a poor harvest. Even those who strain to follow the rules could be punished as the rules shift with a leader’s whims. 

In Chen’s collection, ambitious Red Guards execute the eponymous Mayor Yin, a well-respected leader who fell afoul of the latest campaigns, even as he shouts “Long live Chairman Mao!” Neighbors are called on to catch a woman’s adultery. An old man goes to the market to buy a fish for his sick wife, only to find the fish on display can’t be purchased: They’re only a prop to convince foreign visitors that the town is doing well. A lonely bachelor has his marriage prospects repeatedly dashed as the women he chooses are deemed politically unacceptable. 

The depiction of North Korea in Bandi’s stories is even starker, the characters more desperate: A man is sentenced to a labor camp for traveling without a permit to visit his sick mother. An old man works hard on a soybean farm, even leaving his family, but is punished when his crop fails. Citizens strip hills bare picking flowers to place on altars dedicated to the recently deceased Kim Il Sung, and those who don’t show sufficient sorrow are labeled reactionary.

What might happen in a communist regime when kids act like kids and inadvertently offend the country’s leader? In Chen’s story “Chairman Mao Is a Rotten Egg,” parents panic after learning their 4-year-old has repeated that reactionary slogan from a classmate. They fear their young son will receive a permanent mark on his record that will come back to haunt him. 

In Bandi’s story “City of Specters,” a toddler is deathly afraid of the portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il Sung visible from the family’s apartment window, leading his mother to close the blinds. The local party secretary then complains of the family’s disrespect towards the leaders and the family is “relocated” to the countryside for its anti-revolutionary crimes. 

As one character in Bandi’s stories notes, “A sincere, genuine life is possible only for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we trick even ourselves. … Surely you know that whatever the play, the curtain always falls in the end.”

Reporting for the party?

The U.S. Justice Department has ordered China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (formerly known as CCTV) to register as foreign agents. This means they must register with the Justice Department and must include disclaimers on their broadcasts and published material stating that they are foreign agents. Their reporters could also lose congressional press credentials. 

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