Restricting religious content online may create instability
New rules banning all foreign groups and individuals from using the internet to promote and preach religions or disseminate religious content may create a result opposite to what the authorities are targeting
China has a long history of outside religious influence from east and west. The internet has extended its reach to every corner of the land. That has prompted the Communist Party to step in and toughen its oversight of the practice of religion, which it sees as having the potential to weaken its political control. The result is a draft of new rules banning all foreign groups and individuals from using the internet to promote and preach religions or disseminate religious content. It was released a day after the authorities in Beijing banned the Zion church, one of the capital’s biggest unofficial Protestant churches, and confiscated “illegal promotional materials”.
The proposed new rules, issued by the National Religious Affairs Administration, are aimed at providing “lawful regulation”. All groups distributing religious information online would need a licence. While they could preach and offer religious training they could not live stream or broadcast religious activities.
These measures are a reminder that despite its achievements in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and raising China to world-power status, the party still sees religion as a rival for the hearts and minds of the people. However, in a country with a long history of upheaval and sacrifice – even since the Communist Party established the people’s republic – it is inevitable and only human that people will feel the need for spiritual continuity, comfort and guidance. If Beijing tries to suppress it with this kind of tactic it could backfire.
Even if there is a perception of radical Islamic influence and separatist sentiment involving national security in the Xinjiang region, an across-the-board solution is far too simplistic, and likely to cause more problems real or imagined. It only drives people to take desperate action.
There is no question that most of those affected by the new rules are peace-loving people whose faith is untainted by a political agenda. The authorities may have some legitimate reasons for tightening administration of religious affairs, such as scams and undesirable cult activities, but banning normal religious activities is not the right way to deal with them. That only creates more fertile grounds for extremist activities. Defending the new rules, an ethnic studies professor at Minzu University of China, Xiong Kunxin, said it would bring online religious content under legal scrutiny. Ironically, a devout internet user, a monk named Shixue, in Zhejiang province, best articulated concerns about possible perverse effects: “If the government restricts … access to religious content via legitimate channels, it can hardly stay tuned to the hearts and minds of believers, and will sow the seeds of instability”. That would be opposite to the result the authorities are targeting.