Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing oversight of Christian life in China today, there is a gray space between the nation’s political tensions, economic revolution, and spiritual revivals that begs for greater reflection and sustained inquiry: the “walled garden” of China’s internet.1 If you’ve been in China at any point in the past few years, you’ve likely been dazzled by just how “plugged in” Chinese society has become. The potent combination of personal smart phones and internet technologies has spawned an expansive Chinese digital society that has made physical cash obsolete, streamlined services, and even rendered government surveillance an acceptable mundane reality.
What does China’s digital society mean for the church, especially since the Covid pandemic has forced many congregations to continue their worship and ministries online? This topic has been addressed in several recent ChinaSource posts, ranging from high praise to critical reservation. In between these perspectives, this post and video presentation highlights “Jingjie” (境界, Territory) as an example of how WeChat/Weixin has served as an alternative public square for Christians, toeing the line between good citizenship and faithful witness.
For those who may not be familiar, Jingjie is an overtly Christian media group founded in 2013 that aspires to be the premier digital Christian lifestyle periodical, highlighting stories of faith worked out in everyday life that provide rational critique and emotional resonance. Topics covered on Jingjie include testimonies of faith, advice about family life and workplace relationships, as well as commentary on current events. Many of the essays featured on Chinese Church Voices are translations of Jingjie’s content.
The following three-minute video presentation was given at the 2021 Yale-Edinburgh Group’s World Christianity Conference, hosted online this year because of the pandemic. In it I provide examples of how Jingjie’s content walks the thin line between public Christianity and private faith in Chinese society.
Despite Jingjie’s holistic and public take on Christian faith, it has generally avoided political scrutiny from authorities. Why? In addition to avoiding politically sensitive topics, Jingjie’s content reinforces the image of Christianity as a facilitator of spiritual inspiration and ethical living, traits the government encourages. After all, Lu Wei, former deputy of China’s propaganda department, has compared China’s internet to “a spiritual garden which worships virtue and the good, is civilized and polite, and which warms people’s hearts.” For this reason, Jingjie can be viewed as a digital Christian “alter-public,” defined by Carsten Vala and Jianbo Huang as a “a site for religious discussion, prayer, and devotion that strengthens an ‘alternative’ Protestant identity alongside that of Chinese citizen of the People’s Republic of China.”2 In this walled garden, Christianity can cultivate its own corner for spiritual well-being.
Nevertheless, the well-being of these religious and spiritual flora is ultimately beholden to the whims of the gardener in charge. Early this summer, Jingjie was closed down for the second time in its history with much of its diverse content wiped. Since then, the editors have reconvened under a new handle and have continued publishing stories of faith and commentary. In the same way physical house church networks have emerged and dispersed in response to the changing climate, so too are these prominent digital outposts. The dynamics explored here are one more reason why scholars and practitioners alike must strive to better understand the role that social media and the internet are playing in Chinese religious life.
- Yi-Ling Liu builds out this metaphor of Chinese cyberspace as a “walled garden” during an age of pandemic in her piece, “Returning to China’s walled garden,” Rest of the World, 23 November, 2020,accessible at https://restofworld.org/2020/the-suffocation-of-chinese-internet/.
- Carsten Vala and Jianbo Huang, “Online and Offline Religion in China: A Protestant WeChat “Alter-Public” through the Bible Handcopying Movement,” Religions (2019), accessible at https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/10/561/pdf.
Image credit: Waltteri Paulaharju from Pixabay.
Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio
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