Print Version    Email to Friend
Freedom of religion for a Church in chains

HONG KONG (SE): By its very nature cyberspace transcends borders, which makes drawing territorial demarcation lines designating control over content, access or usage an almost contradictory task.

However, the United States of America (US) holds most of the keys to the doors that can lock, monitor and block, as it possesses the 13 facilities that allocate IP address, which gives it a head start in the manipulation game.

Nevertheless, at the World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province on December 16, the president of the one nation that undoubtedly has the most sophisticated programme in the world of selectively censoring news and views, Xi Jinping, called for a cyberspace without hegemony and without interference in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs.

While this oft repeated mantra echoes from China on almost every front of international activity, Xi’s high sounding rhetoric rings like a plea for privacy in a highly public world of the proverbial goldfish bowl.

The Chinese government exercises tight control over its Internet users, blocking international search engines, websites and information sharing social media.

Its approximately half a million hands-on censors are alert to what is deemed the dangerous information flow, which goes far beyond the boundaries of what Xi described at the conference as the dangers of pornography, or even terrorism and drug trafficking.

Censorship is not a new game in China. Censorship of the media has been at play since the Communist regime came to power in 1949 and has had a vital role in the control of information, not only through what it censors, but by what it allows or promotes.

But nor has censorship in China been confined to the media. It has extended to the day-to-day operations of non-government organisations of any colour, both commercial and not-for-profit, including religions, among them the Catholic Church.

Censorship of the Internet is no different. What is censored and why, is of critical interest to any organisation that deals in or with China.

The squashing of information is not only concerned with keeping uncomfortable thoughts off the air, the government also extols the open space as an important place for the gathering of information.

Hence the creation of its own national social media.

An extensive study carried out at Harvard University in the US on censorship of the Internet in China gives an insight into the rationale that drives the tight control game.

Put together by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts, the study downloaded millions of social media posts from 1,400 service providers in China for analysis.

The study, titled, How censorship in China allows government criticism, but silences collective action, quotes two posts that appeared on local Chinese social media, one censored and one not.

One post reads, “I have always thought China’s modern history to be full of progress and revolution. At the end of the Qing, advances were seen in all areas, but after the Wuchang uprising, everything was lost. The Chinese Communist Party made a promise of democratic, constitutional government at the beginning of the war of resistance with Japan. But after 60 years that promise is yet to be honoured.

“China today lacks integrity and accountability that should be traced to Mao. In the 1980s, Deng introduced structural political reforms, but after Tiananmen, all plans were permanently put on hold… intra-party democracy espoused today is just an excuse to perpetuate one party rule.”

That post was not censored and not because the censorship system leaks, as most posts that are deleted are clipped the day they are put up, with only a handful being removed a few days later.

However, the following post on a housing demolition gone horribly wrong was censored and the authors of the study believe it was because it had the potential to rally popular support, even though it praises the government.

“The bombing led not only to the tragedy of his death, but of many government workers. Even if we can verify what Qian Mingqi said on Weibo that the building demolition caused a great deal of personal damage, we should still condemn his extreme act of retribution…

“… the government has continually put forth laws to protect the interests of citizens in building demolition… The rate at which compensation for housing has increased exceeds inflation. In many places, this compensation can change the fate of an entire family.”

The Harvard study concludes, “Looking bad does not threaten (government) hold on power, so long as they manage to eliminate discussion associated with events that have collective action potential—where a locus of power and control, other than government, influences the behaviours of masses of Chinese people.”

In this context, the study says that the Chinese people are individually free, but collectively in chains.

The authors say unequivocally that the government believes that any action where the collective expression is organised outside its control equals factionalism and ultimately chaos and disorder.

Chinese government censorship policies are aimed at limiting collective action by clipping social ties, so any action on or off the Internet that poses the possibility of collective action is in the sights of the censor.

As a group, Chinese Catholics have not been overtly critical of the government, with the exception of its interference in the Church’s internal affairs, yet censorship of all Church activities has always been extremely strict.

On the Internet, any post that seems capable of generating collective action or linking people together falls within the ambit of the censors’ scissors.

Off the Internet, the Catholic Church is nationwide and has international ties. It is linked by its very nature.

Censorship of Church activity is often directed at preventing parishes, dioceses or Church personnel from forming links and communicating with each other, as well as insulating the Church against foreign influences.

However, while striving to blanket the foreign from the local Church in China, the government is sensitive to its international image and two full-page articles on the Church appeared in the China Daily, an English-language publication primarily directed at foreign audiences, prior to a mooted meeting of the Communist Party on religion.

One, dated December 12 to 13, features the renovation of St. Ignatius’ Cathedral in Shanghai and exults the work as government respect for the freedom of religion and public safety.

The other, dated November 19, features the National Seminary in Beijing. It also includes a sensitive and an in-depth interview with a fifth-year seminarian.

But the government continues to take action to prevent Church people from communicating sideways, prompting one bishop to comment, “It is easy to run a parish, but difficult to run a diocese.”

Any organisation that cannot communicate freely and broadly among its members will have a hard time flourishing.

Whatever comes out of the much vaunted meeting on religion, mooted by the Communist Party to take place this month,  is bound to have this in its sights, as the government will continue to propose religious freedom for the individual while, at the same time, keeping the Church in chains.


More from this section