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China’s new Internet rules will clip religious wings

HONG KONG (UCAN): The Provision for the Administration of Internet News issued on May 2 by the Cyberspace Administration of China requiring online outlets using mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant messaging or webcasts as a medium must be licenced or face prosecution has left Catholic webmasters in a flip.
The new provision specifically states that no one may produce, reproduce, publish or disseminate any information that is regarded as being prohibited.
In effect, the provision means that news content providers and readers must register themselves using their real names.
Although the regulation will not come into effect until June 1, the tighter censorship regulations have already had a bite.
A Church media outlet, which is operating outside China using WeChat to reach mainland readers, said it has failed repeatedly to avoid censorship when uploading audio-visual programmes recently.
“The situation has existed for a while already. We are considering setting up our own website instead. After all, the WeChat platform is not under our control,” the director of the Catholic media outlet who only gave his name as John, pointed out.
WeChat is a popular social media app with 600 million registered users in China. Besides individual accounts, it also provides public accounts for famous individuals, governments, media and enterprises to propagate issues and views, and raise their popularity.
“We have read reports about the new regulation, but there is not much information about it yet, so we have been thinking about ways to deal with the situation once it has been implemented,” John said.
As of January this year, China had 731 million Internet users and 91 per cent of these use their mobile phones to go online.
The Cyberspace Administration says that the provision was formulated as early as 2005, but it could not match the fast development in areas like fake news, subscriber news services and other things regarded as violations of the interests of Internet users.
The authorities stepped up their campaign to control the Internet in 2014 when the president, Xi Jinping, assumed the head of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs.
He stressed the issue of network sovereignty twice, once in a study class for the Communist Politburo in October 2016 and again at the opening of the Third World Internet Conference in November 2016.
Online religion was also highlighted by Xi in the National Conference of Religious Work in April.
Online evangelisation and religious content on social media has been thriving recently and it is unclear how the new situation will affect things.
More than 50 dioceses, parishes and Catholic groups hold registered WeChat public accounts to promote Church activities, news and catechetical input. However, a number of them are stagnant and have not been updated for a. long time.
Since February, Christians have complained that their audio programmes had been removed from Ximalaya, a popular podcast website and mobile app with 200 million users.
A diocesan webmaster in eastern China commented that religious affairs officers had been examining the content of their WeChat public account recently.
“They removed a lot of retweeted news, especially anything about big Church events with many participants. The officials just want everyone to practice their faith at home,” the webmaster, who asked not to be named, said.
Stephen, a webmaster in northern China, believes the new provision was pushed through against a background of a social media usage increasingly beyond government control and emerging conflicts among political factions in the Communist Party.
“Many people are retweeting news from outside, which the authority does not want the public to know about. So the authorities simply draw a line for all and do not let you speak,” Stephen said, adding that it will be extremely difficult to get a licence under the new regulations.
He said that he does not think the provision will affect them for the moment, as diocesan news does not attract much attention, while “the target is to deter social media from exposing bad news related to the government.”
However, Stephen said that “tweets and news about the persecution of the Church, detention of clergy, disputes over Church property and illicit ordination without papal approval would be censored.”
He added, “If that is so, we can only rely on Church media outside China to be a voice for us.”
In central Shanxi province, another webmaster, Father Francis, said he would “try not to publish anything that is radical in the eyes of the authorities.”
The priest said he understands the new measures, because “the domestic situation is highly complex,” but he disagreed about the way it is being done.
“Instead, the authorities should find out and correct problems to quell people’s anger and give people freedom and inner peace,” Father Francis concluded.

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