China: new law makes online church meetings illegal

Christians in China have experienced increasing surveillance since the start of the pandemic.(Photo: Open Doors)

China is tightening up its religious regulations around online meetings.

A new law will take effect on 1 March making online gatherings illegal for unregistered churches. The law will also make it illegal to share religious content on social media.

The two state-controlled denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, are exempt from the new regulations. 

Thomas Muller, Asia analyst for Christian anti-persecution charity Open Doors, said that even state-controlled churches will be affected by the law.

"To be able to post or share anything online requires an 'Internet Religious Information Service Permit'. In practice these will only be made available to the already 'legally established' churches," he explained.

"Even these churches will have their content closely scrutinized, to ensure that the message is suitably 'Sinicized' and in keeping with Chinese Communist Party teaching.

"All other 'underground' churches are effectively being driven off the internet."

China is ranked 17th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where Christians face the worst persecution. 

Dr David Landrum, Director of Advocacy for Open Doors UK & Ireland, said this latest law was part of a long-running strategy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"The CCP has long seen religion as a potential threat. Where it can't shut religion down, it has tried to contain it," he said.

"In recent years, we have seen some state-approved churches install facial recognition technology, close and destroy churches and rewrite passages of the Bible for educational materials.

"They fear that Christians have another loyalty than to the CCP, and they are correct.

"Churches will need to adapt the way they operate, with many possibly coming offline for now. As the nation's search for meaning continues to be unmet by the nation's official atheist dogmas, they will continue to grow."

Christian sources in China told Open Doors that they have already deleted religious social media content in anticipation of the new law coming into force.

The regulations solidify creeping state control of online spaces, with one Christian leader in southern China, who cannot be named for security reasons, saying that large online meetings in his area have all but "disappeared". 

"So far, we have been able to hold small online gatherings, with a few church members attending each time. We will continue our meetings online, wherever there is space. We will play it by ear," he said.