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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 percent 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 6 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 mobilize 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.
As with Twitter, Weibo postings are restricted to 140 characters. But that is less of a limitation than it sounds. In Chinese languages, 140 characters are equivalent to 70 or 80 words in English—enough to spark a debate or begin to tell a story.
Users also can post pictures and video clips to their Weibo pages. And from there, they can link to the Chinese equivalent of YouTube—Youku—where the band Rainbow Come can be seen performing.
An earlier indication of growing boldness among China’s Christian community came in August, when a picture was posted on Weibo of a young man standing in a public square holding a placard with a gospel message. Christians on Weibo praised him for his courage and commended him for the example he was setting.
Others began to follow that example. Another picture was posted of a little girl, holding a yellow sign surmounted by a cross, proclaiming, “Believe in Jesus and receive eternal life.” She was holding the banner aloft in a public square in Shenzhen, while her parents shared their faith with passers-by. According to the Gospel Times, 20 people responded by committing their lives to following Jesus.
The girl’s father later thanked the Christian online community for its encouragement, saying: “[You have] given me great strength. May the gospel arise in China and save the country and people from their sin. May God receive all the praise and glory.”
Yet another Weibo blog displays a map giving the location of churches across China. The east of the country is thick with them. Beside the map, the posting says: "Western missionaries… through much suffering, gave their lives to irrigate this hard and rocky soil. Every Christian should think about this."
A veiled reference, perhaps, towards persecution today in China? According to Christians in Communist China, the country has 14 million ‘registered’ believers, whose churches come under the control of the atheist state. Yet more than five times as many Christians risk suspicion, surveillance and arrest by choosing to worship in unregistered, and therefore illegal, house churches.
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 Youcef 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 last month was brought back into custody.
But there also have been postings about the lack of religious freedom for Christians in China itself. In July, Shanghai's newly-ordained auxiliary Bishop, Ma Daqin, resigned from his post in the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He stepped down immediately after his ordination, in a gesture described by the BBC “as a challenge to Chinese state control over Catholic churches and clergy.”
The government responded by closing his Catholic seminary, to a flurry of protests on Weibo. Forum 18 highlighted one notable posting: "a regime that deprives a religious organisation of autonomy and attacks and divides religious workers… is not qualified to say that the country under its rule has… religious freedom."
On Dec. 14, Bishop Ma was stripped of his title by the government, and he’s believed to be under house arrest.
Christians have also posted messages on Weibo in support of Shouwang Church, the largest unregistered Protestant congregation in Beijing, which has been repeatedly refused permission to buy or rent premises. Members have been worshipping in the open air since 2011 and have faced harassment and arrest.
So far, such murmurings have been tolerated by officialdom, and Weibo is fast establishing a track record for exposing corruption and the abuse of power at lower levels of government – the level at which religious persecution often takes place.
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