Distinguishing facts from rumors is never an easy endeavor, but it is even more difficult in China, where official information is often lacking. In the absence of official, verified information, rumors abound. In fact, it sometimes seems that the country runs on rumors; so much so that the government regularly feels the need to remind people that it is illegal to spread rumors.
Last week I was asked about a report that China had issued a quota to policemen on the number of Christians that are to be arrested. I told him that I had not heard of such an order, but that in the 20+ years I worked in China a variation of that rumor had circulated every few years. No one could ever verify it and it never seemed to happen. Without knowing the source, I told him that I was skeptical and that it should probably remain in the category of rumor.
Since that conversation, I have seen the story making the rounds on Christian media sites. There are four things in particular that make me skeptical of this story.
1. The source of the story seems to be a website called Bitter Winter.
In my work as editor of ZGBriefs I have done a fair amount of research on that site and it seems to have connections to, or at least sympathies with the Eastern Lightning/Almighty God cult in China. As a result, I tend to approach their stories with a healthy dose of caution.
2. “China” is conflated with what was told to them by one policeman, in one city, in one province.
The Bitter Winter post relates a conversation with one policeman in one city in one province. From there, it became an avalanche of stories on Christian media sites, with a variation of the headline “China Imposing Quotas for Arrest of Christians.”
3. The timing of the recent spate of stories is curious.
The original Bitter Winter story was posted in October, yet the story is just now gaining traction, primarily within Christian media. However, since it was originally posted, no evidence has emerged to suggest that it is being implemented, either in the city in question or nationwide. Furthermore, for our Chinese Church Voices column we monitor Chinese Christian social media sites and have not seen the topic show up.
4. The supposed photo of the document is what gives me pause the most, however, because of the way it is cropped.
Every official government document in China looks the same, with the name of the document in red characters at the top, and a red chop (seal) at the bottom with the name of the issuing government office or agency. In China, nothing is official unless it has a red chop! The photo in the post shows neither. Without including those two elements in the photo of the document, there is no way of verifying its authenticity. Instead the fact that the header and chop are excluded would indicate that they are not on the document. In other words, if they really are on the document, why crop the authenticating features out?
As things continue to tighten in China, and crackdowns (on everything) spread, the rumors are bound to multiply. As those who care about the church in China and our brothers and sisters there, we need to make sure that we are reporting what is happening, not what we fear may be happening. Unfortunately, in our social-media driven, “click-baity” environment, we often don’t slow down to check the facts.
Remember, look for the red chop!
Update January 4, 2019: In private discussions with Bitter Winter, they have indicated that they do not have any affiliation with the "Church of Almighty God," but as a result of their focus on the sociological study of non-traditional religions they do cover the group extensively. I regret the error.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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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