• Andrew Collins

#Trending on Weibo…Jesus?

Celebrities, brands, and famed bloggers are not the only ones who are influential on Weibo. Chinese social media has proven a great platform for reaching religious followers, and imam Ma Guangyue has proven how influential it can be. 42-year-old Ma has been blogging on Weibo for over a year, explaining and answering questions about Islam. A main focus is on peaceful living, for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Ma supports respecting different cultures and religions while condemning terrorist attacks to be against Islam and unacceptable, and has amassed over 7,600 followers on Weibo and over 30,000 on WeChat.

Ma Guangyue is only one example of how religion is making a stronger presence not only in China, but on Chinese social media. Other prominent public figures now publicise their religious beliefs and attract large followings, such as real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi, a Christian who has almost 17 million followers. With the growth of Christianity (with some estimating that the total Christian population will exceed 247 million by 2030 and surpass that of Mexico, Brazil, and the USA) has come a prevalence of religious speech on Chinese social media platforms and more people exercising religious freedom.

Yet the religious environment in China is fraught with uncertainties, especially for Christian followers as that is quickly growing. Though it is much easier to mention Jesus and religion on Weibo than it is mention communism or the Party, and China officially promotes religious freedom, in reality the government still is suspicious of religion.

Though the government estimates there are 20 million Christians, the actual population is hard to determine as millions attend underground churches, and is likely closer to 60 million or more. The government has persisted in disbanding underground churches, often through indirect means such as cutting off electricity and water. Religions, with large followings and intense loyalty, pose a threat to the Communist Party, so having state-supported churches allows the government an opportunity to keep an eye on congregations. But even state-supported churches are vulnerable. There was a big uproar when the Party demolished a state-sanctioned church in Wenzhou earlier this year, citing “zoning violations.”

“Falun Gong” is another search term on Weibo that has been blocked, as the religious practitioners have been severely persecuted for over a decade. As a religion that has irreversibly gone into the banned territory, there is no Falun Gong presence on Weibo. Social media platform WeChat is harder to control though, since it uses private messaging. The Uighurs, a Muslim minority group mainly in the Xinjiang province, have reportedly spread banned material through social media services such as WeChat, since their religious practices are also restricted by the government, including Ramadan each year, when fasting is discouraged or even banned for many. With 23 million Muslims in China, the conflict has understandably increased tensions as the Chinese government feels threatened by increasingly violent opposition; earlier this year, the Party blocked access to WeChat and similar platforms in Hotan, a city in Xinjiang that has seen several recent attacks.

But with conflicts arising amongst religious groups and the Chinese government, social media has also been a medium for voicing concerns. Last year, Li Caihong turned to Weibo to ask for help after her husband was detained for selling Christian books in Shanxi, a province notorious for harsher persecution of Christians. Her Weibo post was reposted over 5 thousand times and received over a thousand comments.

With the rising religious populations and unrest in China, a country that officially has religious freedom but has been regulating religious practices, there may be upcoming changes in how the government deals with religion.

Image via BosNewsLife

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