While printed publications have long been censored in China, the authorities have also tried to keep up with technological developments, according a Norway-based news agency. Forum 18, which monitors religious freedom in Communist and former Soviet states, recently released an article following a two-month survey conducted on China's censorship of religious materials on the world wide web.
In what is believed to be the largest survey to date of how far the Chinese government's Golden Shield internet firewall denies access to religious websites, Forum 18 tested several hundred religious sites, including sites in a variety of languages (Chinese, Korean, Russian and Western languages) maintained by different denominations (including Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish), overseas Chinese-language religious communities in South East Asia, Australasia and North America, religious rights groups, human rights groups, religious news agencies and magazines, religious educational institutions, religious political movements and foreign governments.
The tests were carried out over a two-month period - from mid-May to mid-July and looked at access in a variety of locations in China. All the sites found by Forum 18 to be inaccessible in China were accessible in Europe and North America.
While overall internet usage in China may be low by developed country standards, it has been rapidly growing, especially in the capital Beijing and the developed coastal region. The official China Internet Network Information Center put the number of Chinese with access to the internet in June 2004 (its most recent figures) at 87 million--a number that had been doubling every six months, but is now leveling off.
Forum 18 established that while Chinese internet users do have access to a range of websites based outside the country that cover religious themes in Chinese or other languages, certain religious sites appear to be consistently blocked because of their content, such as ones in Chinese detailing persecution of religious communities in China.
In a bid to maintain control over the internet, all internet service providers (ISPs) as well as internet content providers are required to be licensed by the government. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China have reported extensively in recent years on China's denial of access to specific political, human rights, opposition and independent news websites.
The barring of the sites maintained by the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and Chinese exile human rights groups like Human Rights in China has long been documented, but Forum 18 found that specific Christian religious rights sites that report on persecution within China – especially those in Chinese – were also inaccessible. China Aid Association (www.chinaaid.org), a US-based group with up-to-date reporting on harassment of Protestant house churches, was inaccessible at all locations and on all the occasions Forum 18 tried to gain access. Also inaccessible were the sites of the US-based Committee for the Investigation of Persecution of Religion in China (www.china21.org and religiousfreedomforchina.org), which contain information in Chinese and English on persecution of Protestants. Indeed, on two separate occasions when trying to access religiousfreedomforchina.org in Beijing, Forum 18 was directed to a commercial site www.prescriptiondieting.com.
Similarly inaccessible was the site of US-based religious freedom group Free Church for China (www.freechurchforchina.org), as was the Italian-based site Asia News (www.asianews.it), which has a wide range of religious news in Chinese, Italian and English covering a variety of faiths.
Websites which present a rosy picture of religious freedom in China - such as the US-based site of the Amity Foundation of the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement (www.amityfoundation.org), the US-based Christianity in China (www.christianityinchina.org) which declares that it "aims to be positive", or the British-based Friends of the Church in China (www.thefcc.org) – are not blocked.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where for specific blocked sites a message appears stating bluntly that access is "not allowed", Chinese servers either tell the customer that the site is unavailable, that there is an error, or that the site cannot be found. On other occasions the attempt to access the site simply times out.
Forum 18 acknowledged that more research needs to be done on where the barring is taking place, whether at the national gateway or on ISP servers, although it is known the Chinese government is devoting a vast level of resources to creating increasingly sophisticated software to bar "unwelcome" material more efficiently.
Also, the government has not only worked hard to deny access to "unwelcome content," it has taken steps to prevent religious communities and individual believers within China trying to use the internet for what it regards as unacceptable purposes. Article 19 of China's regulations on registering domain names, which went into force in September 2002, bars the registration of domain names if the site is used to harm state interests. Clause 5 of the regulations bans websites that violate "state religion policies or propagate cult and feudal superstition".
In one of the first known crackdowns on Christians who used the internet for similar purposes, , the police arrested a computer technician who posted articles online in November 2003 supporting Protestant house churches. Zhang Shengqi was detained in the northeastern city of Jilin and charged with leaking state secrets. The police suspected Zhang of helping Protestant church historian Liu Fenggang post information about the crackdown on house churches in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Liu, a veteran pro-democracy campaigner, was also detained in Hangzhou on state secrets charges. The two – together with a third man who had printed Liu's reports – were originally charged with "inciting the gathering of state secrets" but this was changed to "providing intelligence to organizations outside China". They were tried in March 2004, though no sentence is yet known.
The findings of Forum 18's survey correspond with the general perception of a Chinese state that remains deeply concerned about maintaining internal stability and by extension, the continuation of Communist rule. Nearly all blocked websites have content critical of the government's policy on religion, while groups like the China Aid Association and the Committee for the Investigation of Persecution of Religion in China provide detailed accounts of state repression. From the state's perspective, these websites, by virtue of their content, publicly question the legitimacy of the Communist state and may thus serve as agents of agitation and "public disorder" within China.
Censorship of websites by restrictive governments has been noted in a range of countries, from China to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan. All of these to a greater or lesser extent bar access to religious websites the authorities do not like. Forum 18 established that in Uzbekistan, sites deemed sympathetic to Muslims opposed to the regime of President Islam Karimov are routinely blocked. Saudi Arabia bars Arabic-language and foreign-language Christian, Baha'i and numerous other religious sites.
But the censorship of religious websites in China is more extensive and more expensive than in any other country of the world, the agency reported. The sheer number of Chinese with access to the internet and number of religious websites with Chinese-language content, combined with the level of state control over free religious practice, makes the censorship of religious sites a severe restraint on the religious rights of all residents of China.
[Source: Forum 18]