‘I fear they will normalise this’ – Restrictions combine to make life even more difficult for religion and belief groups in China

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on the functions of nearly every religion or belief group in every country in the world over the past two years. While many have now emerged from lockdowns and measures imposed to curb the spread of the virus are being lifted in most countries, arguably some of the strictest restrictions remain in the country where the virus was first detected: China.

Since December 2021, China has been wrestling with the spread of the omicron variant, with many cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Xi’an, having been placed under lockdowns at various points over the past six months. Even as lockdowns have been lifted in some places, they remain in effect in others, and there is no telling from one week to the next whether more severe measures will be enforced in any one place.

Meanwhile, for religious groups in these and other cities remaining restrictions designed to limit the spread of the virus have combined with new regulations on online religious activities to make everything from online meetings to day-to-day communication extremely difficult.

The measures, which were jointly formulated by five ministries, came into effect on 1 March 2022 and prohibit the sharing of religious content online without a permit, including through text messages, images, audio and video. The measures also prohibit religious content that “induce[s] minors to believe in religion”.

Since the measures came into effect, online communities have been shut down one after another, while applications such as the popular Bible app ‘WeDevote’ have been taken down from domestic Android stores.

Additionally, mainstream video and music platforms have removed large numbers of religion-related videos and religious songs respectively. On one platform, Baidu Video, almost no videos related to religion show up in search results at present; another, Bilibili, has prohibited live-streaming of religious content.

“We will now regularly create new WeChat groups, two a week, to ensure that one is used and the other is reserved, and the previous groups will be completely disbanded. Well, I do not know how long this state can last, why do not they even allow a WeChat group? What are they afraid of?”

– A Christian from Shanghai

A large number of WeChat public accounts have stopped publishing new content due to pressure, while some users have cleared all the content posted in the past or even deleted their accounts.

“To be honest, now we have no spare energy to think about safety and security issues. I know it may not be safe to meet via WeChat group video. But, well, I do not know, at least we have not encountered a situation where the video is cut off.”

– Another Christian from Shanghai

“To make matters worse I fear they will normalise this. [Maybe] the government [officials] see this [and think], ‘Eh? These anti-epidemic measures can also be used to suppress churches, so let us keep it that way.’ Maybe they do not come for the church at first, but [these measures] will always affect churches in the end.”

– A Christian from Xi’an

In short, since the implementation of the new Measures, it has become extremely difficult for members of religion and belief groups in China to freely access religious information on the internet, even at a time when many have faced significant and even legal restrictions on meeting in person in relation to the pandemic.

One of the ways around this has been to access banned websites via VPNs, which are illegal in China. In other words, Chinese believers are now forced to choose between breaking the law or abstaining from participating in key parts of the manifestation of their religion or belief.

Crucially, with all of this taking place under an administration which has continuously sought to crack down on human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, from Tibet, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to Hong Kong, to major cities throughout the mainland, it is likely that the situation is only set to worsen.

It is clear that the international community must do far more to hold China to account for its actions. However, as seen recently with the deeply controversial post-visit statement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights after her visit to the country, there appears to be a significant reluctance to do so even in the most high-profile of international fora.

This blog draws on research and quotes provided to CSW by an independent researcher Lucas Young, whose name has been changed for security reasons.