Many Chinese Christians lament that the Internet mission winter in China is entering its darkest and coldest hour.
This week, Chinese state media reported that the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) announced its “Measures for the Administration of Religious Information Services on the Internet,” which will take effect on the 1st. March and will limit online ministry to clerics approved by the Chinese government. groups with special permits on government approved websites.
“No organization or individual shall preach on the Internet, provide religious education and training, post sermon content, transmit or link to related content, organize and conduct religious activities on the Internet, or broadcast live or publish recorded videos of religious rituals… ”without approval, states the new regulations formulated jointly by five government agencies, including the ministries of public and national security.
A few months ago, I had a dream in which this scripture recurred repeatedly: “Lord, you have been our abode from generation to generation” (Ps. 90: 1). In the dream, I thought, “Lord, what does this remind me of? “
Then I woke up and learned that our ministry’s second main WeChat channel had been shut down by the Chinese government for good, less than a month after our first channel was taken down. Hundreds of thousands of followers evaporated overnight. Blocking the two main channels meant that it would be extremely difficult for our department to regain as much influence as before.
As all Chinese Christians know, WeChat is a huge almighty monster social media platform. The Chinese use WeChat to place orders, pay for tickets, and do almost everything. WeChat’s public accounts have been the most important portal and entry point for all media. If the People’s Daily or video surveillance [China’s official state newspaper and TV channel], a WeChat channel is more important than its own media channels.
For a long time, Christian media were not allowed in China, be it newspapers, magazines, radio or television. But digital media has changed everything. Ten years ago, I saw the great opportunities that new media such as Weibo [a Chinese Twitter-like “mini-blog” platform) and WeChat brought to Christian evangelism and began to focus on the development, promotion, and research of new media ministries.
Christian content has been almost omnipresent on WeChat for the past 10 years. Of course there has been good and bad content, and true and false information, and even an overload of religious information. Then unfortunately, almost every major Chinese Christian channel was deleted on WeChat by June.
The Chinese government introduced its most strict and thorough purge of Christian new media this year. And the set of “measures” announced this month shows us that there will be no reprieve in the future—it will only get worse. Some say these are the darkest days for China in decades in terms of freedom of religious expression.
For our ministry, it is also the greatest disaster, crisis, and challenge we have ever met. Over the past few months, my coworkers and I have been actively exploring coping strategies and discussing with other partner organizations, whose responses are similar to ours.
For example, many recommend keeping a low profile and avoiding sensitive terms, which we call “dancing on the red line.” We’ve done this well in the past, but now we don’t even know where the red line is—or rather, the red line is everywhere. We’ve put a lot of effort into this “dance,” and every article and video we posted was tested repeatedly to self-censor first. But is this still feasible today? Is it worthwhile?
The other response is to develop other social media platforms, but the Chinese government’s policy applies to all social media. When your readership reaches a certain size, you face the same risk. In fact, some e-zine, podcast, and video platforms have had strict restrictions on Christian content for years, while WeChat is actually the latest to take restrictive actions. Another approach is to build and enhance our own websites and apps and to build our own ecosystem. However, websites face the same problem and are even more likely to be blocked.
We need to recognize that China’s tight control is not just targeting Christianity, and it is not just for WeChat and social media. In the past few years, we have seen this applied to the entertainment industry and to private education, to internet giants and to common people from all walks of life.
It hurt the “get rich first” [former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s slogan to encourage Chinese people to pursue personal wealth] group. It was used on Hong Kong, which had been promised “no change for 50 years”. Recently, even Wei Ya, the live streaming queen who has always proclaimed her love for China and the Chinese Communist Party, was fined 1.3 billion yuan heavily. [more than $210 million] on the costs of tax evasion. Indeed, in such a dark time, there is no safe place and no effective strategy on the Chinese internet.
“Lord, you have been our home from generation to generation.” These are the first words of Psalm 90, the prayer of Moses the man of God. On that frustrating and angry June morning, those words were full of certainty, solidity, and brought comfort to me. The verse reminded me that when faced with such challenges, my first reaction should not be to rush to find a new channel or a new platform, for in these darkest times there is no safe place.
As the Chinese saying goes, “Under the overturned nest, how can there be intact eggs?” Nothing is eternal in this world. As a ministerial leader, as a Christian, as a child of God, the first thing I need to remember is, “Lord, you have been our home through all generations. “
Of course, it is always important to think of specific countermeasures. Yet all the work that we have in our hands is so fragile. The new measures announced can be summed up in one simple sentence: Nothing is allowed.
But then what? The Chinese people have always had an attitude of “you have a policy at the top and I have a way around it at the bottom”. To this day, I still firmly believe that the greatest feature of new media is that it has overthrown power, capital and the elite monopoly on the right to speak. This is its essential characteristic and it will not change. The future will continue to see competition between strong measures and (hopefully) even stronger countermeasures.
Restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have rarely been outside for the past two years, and have had the opportunity to learn how to grow flowers. Interestingly, after moving to Michigan I learned that many flowers and trees are planted in the fall and that the cold winter makes them stronger and bloom earlier. It turns out that fall is also the planting season; the seemingly gloomy winter is actually another growing season.
In this harsh winter of WeChat and the Chinese Internet, online missions among Chinese churches abroad continue to grow. On December 17th, Reframe Ministries and other partner organizations hosted the 13th Zoom Internet Missions Forum, and this year’s theme was “Opportunities and Challenges for Church and Mission in the Age of the Metaverse”. The number of participants quickly reached the maximum of 500, far exceeding our expectations. In order to facilitate access for attendees from China, we had to ask North American attendees to exit Zoom and watch the YouTube livestream instead.
Does SARA’s implementation of restrictions mean these online meetings will be banned in March? Or will we have to go to the metaverse? Topics such as the opportunities and challenges brought by the next era of the metaverse to Internet missions may require our attention and focus more than the new regulations.
Publishing is the theme of our own new ministry season, but we will continue to produce video and exploit new media. We believe that every period and every season has the will of God and is under the control of God, whether it is in the morning or in the evening; spring, summer, fall or winter; sow, water or reap. Let us not be idle, but together let us witness to the Lord of the season, the God who makes the seeds grow (Eccles. 11: 6; 1 Cor. 3: 7).
In the last verse of Psalm 90, Moses prays: “That [the Lord] establish for us the work of our hands, yea, establish the work of our hands.
Jerry An is a Chinese Mission Pastor and Executive Director of the China Division of Reframe Ministries. He is producer of the “Speaking by Faith” show and editor of the “New Songs for Wanderers” book series.
Speaking Out is the guest opinion column for Christianity Today and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
Translation by Sean Cheng