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Further strict regulations concerning the sharing of religious content online, due to take effect on 1 March 2022, were published by the Chinese government in December 2021, amid ongoing violations against religious communities over the Christmas and New Year period in China.

The new Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services were released in December 2021. According to the state-run Global Times, the new measures stipulate that “overseas organizations and individuals are not allowed to operate online religious information services within the Chinese territory.”

Any Chinese organisation or individual that operates online religious information services must submit an application to the provincial religious affairs department. The scope of the regulations is deliberately broad, including text messages, images, audio and video shared through any application or online forum (Article 6). 

Especially concerning while the pandemic continues is a prohibition of online religious activities and ceremonies (Article 17). The measures also prohibit religious content that “induce[s] minors to believe in religion,” effectively making online youthwork by religious communities illegal.

December in China was also marked, as in recent years, with the restriction of religious observance of Christmas to a limited number of registered churches across the country. Schools in particular were prohibited from organising Christmas related events. 

US-based Christian organisation China Aid and Chinese Christians on social media reported further detention and surveillance of members of Early Rain Church in Chengdu, Sichuan province, an unregistered church where the pastor and over 100 church members were arrested in December 2018. Elder Li Yingqiang was detained for “disturbing social order” on 24 December 2021 as police attempted to stop him preaching at the church’s online Christmas Eve service. He was released at 12.40am on 25 December. Other church members were followed over the Christmas period by unknown persons believed to be working for the authorities. 

During the same period, Sichuan police issued an official arrest notice, dated 24 December, for retired church leader Hao Ming of Qingcaodi “Green Pastures” Church in Deyang, Sichuan, a church planted by Early Rain Church. China Aid reported that the notice accused Hao of fraud. Shortly afterwards, the family of Qingcaodi “Green Pastures” Church elder Wu Jiannan also received an arrest notice. Hao and Wu were previously detained on 17 November together with several other church members who have since been released.  

On 28 December five Christians in Shanxi Province were put on trial for allegedly “illegally crossing the national border.” The Christians had travelled to Malaysia to attend a Christian conference in January 2020. According to the organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders, all five travelled on their own passports and returned to China legally. Two other Christians, An Yankui and Zhang Chenghao of Zion Reformed Church, who also attended the conference, were arrested on the same charge. 

On 31 December, China Change, a human rights information website, published the China Human Rights Lawyers Group’s annual New Year statement, which raised concerns regarding the disbarment of human rights lawyers, and numerous incidences of arbitrary arrest, secret trials, and trumped up charges against lawyers, scholars, and activists, naming dozens of victims. 

The authors describe their “nigh-hopelessness that we will ever see reform,” adding: “At first glance, today’s China may look like it is blooming with prosperity, but for much of society, the day-to-day reality is dark and uncertain.” Despite this, they also assert: “Every generation has its desperation, and every generation has its hope… The human rights lawyers of China have suffered many setbacks in their mission, yet we remain committed to our task and have no regrets. We may be bruised and battered, but we will stay in the fight to the end.”

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “Throughout 2021 we witnessed daily cases of human rights abuses against religious communities, activists, lawyers, citizen journalists and scholars in China at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. The Christmas period, which should be a time of peace and joy for Christians everywhere, was sadly no exception. We call on the Chinese authorities to cease harassment of members of Early Rain and Qingcaodi “Green Pastures” churches, to release all those detained for their peaceful religious activities, and to urgently withdraw the planned regulations on online religious information, which could have a devastating impact on religion or belief communities in China.”

CSW also welcomes several developments concerning human rights in China that took place in the United States (US) in December. On 23 December, President Joe Biden signed into law legislation to ban imports from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, over concerns about forced labour and human rights abuses against Uyghurs. The State Department announced the appointment of Uzra Zeya as the new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues on 20 December, with responsibility for promoting respect for the human rights of Tibetans, including their right to freedom of religion or belief.

Both the legislation and the appointment of the Coordinator on Tibetan Issues have been strongly opposed by the Chinese government. 

Mr Thomas added: “We welcome initiatives by the US government aimed at addressing human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in XUAR, and Tibetans, and we urge the wider international community to make 2022 a year of action to hold to account the Chinese Communist Party and all those responsible for human rights violations in China.”