China's Internet numbers are impressive. According to the bi-annual report on Internet use released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC) at the end of June 2012, China has 538 million Internet users (that number is most likely above 600 million now). Three hundred eighty-eight million users (72%) access the Internet using their mobile phones. Social media has taken China by storm over the past few years with one social media platform, Sina Weibo, claiming to have more than 300 million users. Think about that for a momentthe number of users of one social media platform is roughly the same as the entire population of the United States. (The original report in Chinese can be found here.)
The Chinese government has developed a very sophisticated censorship/management regime that relies on a combination of keyword monitoring, content blocking and even employment of "internet cops" who monitor websites, forums and social media. In an article titled "China's Internet: The Invisible Birdcage," Bill Bishop, a Beijing based writer explains it this way: "Chen Yun, a Party elder who spent much of his career overseeing the economy, advocated the idea of a 'birdcage economy' for China. The cage was the state economic plan, within which free marketsthe birdscould move freely. China's approach to managing the Internet is similar: the government has built a gilded cage around the Internet that will prove far more robust than its critics expect."
Within this birdcage there is a parallel universe where most Chinese netizens exist. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked. Never mindChina has RenRen, Weibo and Youku, all of which are more appealing to local Chinese because they have been developed and built with the Chinese user in mind.
For outsiders, the story of the Internet in China seems to be the cage itself. Most of what is written is about the limits, controls and what Chinese netizens cannot access and cannot say.
What is far more interesting, however, is how the Internet is being used in Chinawhat is going on inside the birdcage, as it were. Especially with the advent of social media, the Internet in China has become the closest thing that China has to a public squarea place where ordinary people can express their ideas and opinions.
A common assumption is that religious content in general, and Christian content in particular, is something that is not allowed within the birdcage; however, there is no evidence to support this notion. In fact, given the existence of thousands of Christian websites, blogs and micro-blogs, it is safe to say that there is no evidence that Christian content per se is considered sensitive.
The reality is that there is a thriving Christian community online where believers are participating in conversations about what is going on in China and the world, discussing issues and engaging in debates, accessing theological training, offering encouragement and doing evangelism.
In January 2012, World magazine published an article titled "Web of Grace," highlighting some of the overseas ministries that have launched online initiatives in China. These include Jesus Central (Yesu Zhongxin), Gordon Seminary and Desiring God. When I last checked, all of these were accessible within China.
But, what about locally run sites? With thousands of them out there, how do we know where to begin? I recently asked a young, internet-savvy seminary student in Beijing what Christian websites he would recommend paying attention to. These are the four he mentioned:
This site is popular with those participating in and promoting the "open" church movement. There are articles about international and domestic stories related to Christianity as well as commentary on current events. There are also articles related to urban churches and pastoral issues. It is a platform for Christians to discuss faith issues, as well as introduce Christianity to non-believers.
This is more of a straight news site. It is a good site for news and information from churches (mostly registered) and Christian organizations all over China, but there are very few in depth articles.
This is a general site containing sections on spirituality, literature and the arts, news, TV programs and essays. There are also forums where believers can share their comments on the various issues raised in the articles and blogs.
This website provides a platform for Christians to explore issues of faith, discipleship and spiritual life, using blogs and discussion forums.
All of these sites have their IP registration numbers displayed on their home page, which means they are in compliance with government regulations and have registered their sites with the agency that oversees the Internet.
Christians are active participants on Chinese micro-blogging (weibo) platforms as well. While many weibo users are ordinary believers sharing their faith or offering encouragement to others, there are also those who are more famous and influential. These include Yuan Zhiming (@远牧师), a U.S. based pastor who has close to 150,000 "followers," Zhao Xiao (@zhaoxiaolovedgod), a China-based economist who has more than four million "followers," as well as famous actors and actresses.
Perhaps most surprising is the availability of the Bible online. A popular one is O-Bible (http://www.o-bible.com/gb/index.html). With choices of English, simplified characters or traditional characters, this site provides the text of the entire Bible as well as Bible study tools.
What are the implications of this burgeoning online Christian community, especially for individuals and organizations engaged in ministry in China? I think there are at least two. First of all, planning should increasingly include thinking about and developing internet strategies. Secondly, it is probably time to rethink the assumptions that underlie security and communications policies. Things that may have been considered sensitive twenty, or even ten, years ago, may not necessarily be sensitive today.
Certainly not every organization engaged in China will be able to establish an online presence in China, but there are probably a few things that most individuals and organizations can do to either "listen in" on what is happening in the community (and thereby become better informed) or to actually take part in the conversation.
ChinaSource recently launched a new website to help give outsiders access to this online Christian community and thereby provide a platform to "listen in on the conversation." The site, called Chinese Church Voices, posts translations of articles from various Chinese sites, including those mentioned above.
Gospel Times (news)
Christian Times (news)
China Christian Council/Three-self Patriotic Movement
God 611 (testimonies)
Jidu Jiao (news,forum)
ZDL Books (Christian publishing)
Today's Chinese Family
Fuyin TV (Gospel TV)
Living Water (general site)
CCDM (Chinese Christian Digital Media)
Christian Chinese Site
Christian Sharing Site
Desiring God (John Piper)
Jiao Mu Magazine
Lu Li Ping (actress)
Morning Light Bookstore
For Further Reading:
China's Internet: The Invisible Birdcage, by Bill Bishop
Web of Grace (World Magazine)
China Media Project (Hong Kong)
How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression (Harvard)
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio