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Foreigners Barred From Spreading Religious Content as China Tightens Internet Controls

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: December 22, 2021
China Ban on religion
China is apparently rewriting holy books like the Bible. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

A few days before Christmas, Chinese authorities released new Internet regulations on Dec. 21, announcing that all foreign organizations and individuals will be banned from spreading religious content across the country’s tightly censored Internet. Beijing claims the rule is a new effort in safeguarding its national security and monitoring online content.  

The new rules, titled Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services, were jointly drafted by five departments, including the State Administration of Religious Affairs and are slated to come into effect in March 2022. 

“No organization or individual will be allowed to disseminate information about religious ceremonies on the internet unless they have a license from China’s religious regulator,” the statement reads. 

The new rules also state that applicants must apply for a license to “disseminate religious content online and must be an entity or individual based in China and recognized by Chinese laws, and its main representative should be a Chinese national.”

The announcement further states that applications must be submitted to the religious affairs department of their local government and approved licenses will be valid for three years.

Formalizing controls on religion 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long persecuted religions and spiritual faith, killing millions of believers and practitioners since it seized power decades ago — despite religious freedom being guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. In recent years, the CCP has moved to invent more legal tools for its anti-theist stance. 

The regulations are the first of their kind to tighten control of online religious affairs against foreign entities. Stipulations under the new rules prohibits content that uses religion to “incite subversion of state power, oppose the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership, undermine national unity and social stability and promote extremism, terrorism or national separatism.”

Religion in China has long been a focus of confrontation between Beijing and Western governments, mostly over reports of the Chinese government’s rampant human rights’ abuse against prisoners of conscience, Falun Gong practitioners and its Uyghur Muslim minority. 

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Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethics studies at Minzu University in Beijing, said the new measures, especially the ban on foreign organizations and individuals’ online activities, highlights Beijing’s focus on national security and religious censorship.

“Today’s international situation is very complicated. European countries and the US have slandered us just to hinder China’s development – some religious forces will certainly cooperate with their political goals,” Xiong said.

On Dec. 21, in response to Washington’s latest sanctions against the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Beijing announced sanctions against four members of a U.S. government commission monitoring religious freedom. 

Widening tech crackdown

The Chinese government’s tightening on internet celebrities has also intensified in recent weeks. On Dec. 20, tax authorities hit live-stream shopping influencer Huang Wei with an unprecedented 1.34 billion yuan (US$210 million) penalty for tax evasion and ordered her to refrain from rejoining social media. Huang is China’s top shopping influencer with over 80 million followers on Taobao.

On Nov. 22, two other prominent Chinese internet celebrities Zhu Chenhui and Lin Shanshan were also fined 90 million yuan (about $14 million USD). The two influencers have since disappeared from social media, with their social media accounts, Taobao stores and official company websites remaining inaccessible. 

Some analysts have argued that the heavy fines imposed on Internet celebrities are a symptom of the CCP’s fear that these influencers who have millions of followers are amassing too much public attention, thereby threatening the regime’s authoritarian control. 

Some have even said the fines are largely a symbolic tool the government uses in issuing a warning to others that at the end of the day, in China, the government’s iron grip maintains ultimate control.