On April 7, the online magazine Tea Leaf Nation (one of my favorites) published an article titled Infographic: Jesus More Popular Than Mao on China’s Twitter.
The writer set out to determine the prevalence of religious content vs. political content on Weibo and discovered (much to her surprise, it seems) that “the atheist Chinese Communist Party, known for its sometimes heavy-handed policies towards religions, from Islam to Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism, seems far more willing to allow Christian terminology to appear on Weibo than Communist argot, according to data taken from search results on the platform conducted April 3.”
She did a search for “Bible” and “Quotations of Chairman Mao,” and discovered 17 million recent mentions of “Bible” and only 60,000 mentions of Quotations of Chairman Mao.”
A search for “Xi Jinping” (China’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party) yielded 4 million mentions, while a search for “Jesus” yielded more than 18 million mentions.
She found 41.8 million mentions of “Christian Congregation,” while “Communist Party” only turned up 5.3 million mentions.
In other words, the words “Bible,” “Jesus,” or “Christian” are NOT considered to be sensitive words on Weibo. This is something that I wrote about on this site last year in an article for ChinaSource titled China’s Online Christian Community.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the Tea Leaf Nation article veers off course a bit when the writer highlights the results of her search for the term “underground church:”
“That’s not to say that Christian content is free of censorship. A search for the term “underground church,” referring to Christian congregations in China that refuse to register as one of the state-sanctioned churches, produces a blank search page with a notice reading, “results cannot be displayed due to relevant laws and regulations.””
The implication is clearly that these un-registered churches are outside the bounds on Weibo (and by extension, the Internet in general), and therefore fall into the ‘not permitted’ category.
Here’s the problem: people in China generally do not use the term “underground church” (地下教会) to refer to congregations that are not registered as state-sanctioned churches. That’s a term used almost exclusively by foreigners. The common term for these unregistered churches is “house church” (家庭教会). This is true even if the church meets in a venue other than a house, such as rented office space.
If she had used the term “house church” instead, she would have discovered thousands, if not millions of mentions, something that would have actually bolstered her findings.
That mistake notwithstanding, her conclusion is spot on:
“Chatter about religion may make the Chinese government queasy, and occasionally terrified, but it’s politics that keeps its leaders (and censors) awake at night.”
Note: This post first appeared on the ChinaSource Blog.