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Raising the Walls of the Sandbox

In 2018 I wrote a post titled “Get Back in the Sandbox,” in which I tried to show how the ongoing crackdowns and overall tightening of government control over Chinese society was best understood this way:

Imagine a sandbox on a beach with the borders of the sandbox being the political, civil, and religious boundaries set by the Party-state. Over the past 15-20 years, as the Party-state has relaxed its control and enforcement of those boundaries, individuals and sectors in China have been quietly climbing out of the sandbox onto the beach, where there is more freedom. Government officials have loosely enforced Party-state directives. […] Now, the Party-state, under Xi Jinping, is attempting to reassert its control over all aspects of China’s political, civil, and religious life. It realizes that the boundaries have been ignored and that there too many people running up and down the beach outside of its control, so now the Party-state is saying, to everyone, “get back in the sandbox.”

Last month I was texting with a friend in China who was telling me about all the new restrictions that were being imposed on daily life. “The walls of the sandbox just keep getting higher and higher,” she said.

I was reminded of all this two weeks ago when China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) released a document titled “Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services.”1 These measures are to go into effect on March 1. If strictly enforced as written, activities such as religious training, publishing sermons, linking religious content, and broadcasting live or recorded religious events will only be allowed on government -approved religious sites. In other words, the sandbox walls are likely to get higher.

It’s important to understand five important pieces of context for these measures.

First, 2022 will be a politically sensitive year as the Communist Party prepares for the 20th Party Congress in 2022. All Party Congresses are a big deal, but this one especially so since it will most likely grant Party Chairman Xi another five-year term as leader. As is the case prior to other congresses and national government meetings, the goal will be stability maintenance at all costs. There will likely be significant further tightening of party-state control in all sectors of society.

Second, in 2021 the government launched a broader “clean up the internet” campaign that has targeted everything from “effeminate” boy bands to tax-evading influencers to leaders of the big tech companies. It should not be all that surprising, then that religious content would eventually come under scrutiny.

Third, the annual National Religious Work Conference was held in December in Beijing. One of the emphases of that conference was the need to strengthen management of online religious affairs. In response to questions from local reporters, a “relevant person” at SARA stated, “the formulation of the measures is an important measure to implement the spirit of the national religious work conference, an urgent need to ensure China’s network security and ideological security, and an inevitable requirement to improve the modernization of the governance system and governance capacity of religious affairs.” You can read the questions and all the relevant person’s answers here; it’s quite detailed.

Fourth, the text of this document is almost identical to a draft that was released in 2018. It’s curious as to why it has taken three years to move to implementation.

Fifth, while it is tempting to think that these measures are specifically aimed at unregistered Christian groups, that is not necessarily the case. The proliferation of cults and religiously motivated fraud remain a problem as well on China’s internet and China sees those activities as threats to social stability. Trying to clear out the internet of the activity of unregistered groups and unapproved activities will certainly impact unregistered Christian groups, but we must remember that they are simply a piece of the threat that the government perceives exists.

How are local Christians responding in the face of these new onerous regulations? In corresponding with numerous Chinese friends over the past few weeks, it seems that most are adopting a “wait and see” attitude and some are already starting to moderate their posting and sharing of religious content. I’ve also been reminded multiple times about the Chinese saying 上有政策,下有对策. (shang you zhengci, xia you duici.) The top has its measures, and the bottom has its countermeasures. Or the leaders have their measures, and the people have their countermeasures. “We’ll figure it out,” one friend said to me.

Jerry An, of ReFrame Ministries, whose focus has been on using the internet and social media for outreach, recently wrote about these measures in a piece for Christianity Today titled “Chinese Christian Media Ministries Face Bitter Winter of Censorship”:

Of course, it’s still important to think about specific countermeasures. Yet all the work we have in our hands is so fragile. The newly announced measures can basically be summarized in one simple sentence: Nothing is allowed.

But so what? The Chinese people have always had an attitude of “you have a policy at the top and I have a way around it at the bottom.” To this day, I still firmly believe that the greatest feature of new media is that it has overturned the power, capital, and monopoly of elites over the right to speak. This is its essential characteristic and will not change. The future will continue to see a competition between strong measures and (hopefully) even stronger countermeasures.

It’s an excellent piece and I encourage you to read the entire article.

What about foreign entities? Where does this leave them? According to the measures, foreign individuals and organizations registered in China aren’t allowed to engage in religious work or distribute religious content online. However, there are few, if any, doing such work from within China. Most of it is being done from outside China, which means it is, and always has been subject to being blocked. It is reasonable to assume (as Jerry An alludes to in his CT article) that the blocking of content from outside will become more stringent.

At this point, there are many things we don’t know about these new measures. Will they be strictly enforced? How will they be enforced? How will it impact things like Zoom meetings,  conferences, and trainings? How will it impact personal interactions with Christians on platforms such as WeChat? Again, it’s reasonable to assume that those will be difficult to continue.

One thing we do know, however, is that God is still in control. We don’t yet know the impact of these measures, but we can pray for our brothers and sisters in China who must now prepare to deal with them. May God grant them wisdom, courage, and creativity.


  1. The original document in Chinese can be seen here.  An English translation is available at China Law Translate.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement 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 …View Full Bio

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