In China, as controls tighten, religion moves online

Faith communities seek a freedom in the digital world denied in the real one

By Xiao Shi for

The highest echelon of Chinese government officials attended a national conference on religious work held in Beijing on April 22-23.

A workshop on cyber security and information technology had convened one day earlier. Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed both meetings.

Xi placed high importance on regulating religious affairs and cyberspace, saying the path of Sinicization was through making things more Chinese and that includes both religion and the internet.

An article by Shanghai Dianji University professor Zhao Bing in the academic journal "Online Communication" in February 2015, coined the phrase, "cyberreligion," as faith communities turned to the internet to celebrate their faith outside the reach of Chinese authorities.

Zhao said the nature and characteristic of "cyberreligion" is the same as "real religion" — both are evangelical in nature but only in different spatial dimensions.

Religious activities on the web have grown in recent years. Behind the thriving phenomenon of internet-based faith communities, the frustrations and injustices faced in the religious sector in China is revealed.

For example, restrictions on places of worship have prevented religious groups from hosting more activities. Chinese authorities use the excuse "maintaining social stability" to compress normal religious activities.

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