The CCP intensifies inquiries into Christians’ online activities, scrutinizing their every digital step, including purchases of “illegal” religious materials.
by Sun Kairui
For many Protestants in China, the printed materials distributed by state-run Three-Self churches or the Two National Christian Councils do not fulfill their spiritual needs, so they often turned to other channels. But when the sales of Bibles and other religious materials were banned on the internet on March 30, 2018, believers not only lost access to uncensored books but their online purchases years ago were also investigated by the government.
Continuous surveillance. “I feel like I am running naked.”
A member of a Three-Self church from the southeastern province of Fujian told Bitter Winter that in early 2019, she persuaded an online store to order for her some Bibles, disguised as other items. As agreed with the seller, nothing related to religious materials was mentioned in the dispatch papers. Regardless, both failed to escape persecution: The police shut down the online store for selling the Bibles without authorization, and the woman was identified and investigated.
In December 2019, employees of a municipal National Security Division in the eastern province of Zhejiang came to the home of a local Three-Self preacher because he had asked someone in Hong Kong on WeChat to buy a set of religious books and send them to him. The books were confiscated, and an investigation was launched because they were published in the United States.
According to a police insider in Fujian Province, the stringent control of online purchases of religious books is implemented throughout China on orders from the central government, particularly targeting religious literature published abroad. Testimonies from believers from across the country are proof of that.
A house church preacher from Shandong told Bitter Winter that the police investigated him after discovering that he had purchased religious materials on Taobao.com, a Chinese online shopping website owned by the multinational conglomerate Alibaba. “It seems to me that the government can access anything; I feel like I am running naked,” the preacher said.
A Christian, who in January 2018 purchased online some religious books published by the Kernel of Wheat Christian Ministries in the United States, was investigated for buying “prohibited materials.” The woman thought that the books would aid her in strengthening her faith, never expecting to get into trouble with the police. “They had every detail of my online purchase history, including the dates, fees, and alike information,” she said.
A Three-Self believer from Zhejiang Province told Bitter Winter that as he was investigated for buying religious books, the police said to him that his church would have been scrutinized as well had he belonged to a house church.
“I no longer dare to make purchases online or contact my friends through social media, and I don’t bring my cellphone to religious gatherings,” a Sola Fide house church preacher explained how he became even more cautious after he was investigated for buying religious books online.
Wheat Bookstore customers continue to be investigated.
Not only recent purchases but even orders from years ago are probed. On September 1, 2019, Mr. Chen Yu, the owner of Wheat Bookstore, an online Christian bookseller in Zhejiang’s Taizhou city, was detained for selling unapproved religious publications from Taiwan, the US, and other countries. Consequently, the police launched a nationwide investigation to track down the bookstore’s customers through sales orders and confiscated their purchased books.
A Three-Self church preacher from the eastern province of Shandong told Bitter Winter that the National Security Brigade in the county he resides had obtained his online purchase order from 2016. He was called in for interrogation, during which the police claimed that at least 10,000 Wheat Bookstore customers were investigated, and all their religious books were seized.
A Three-Self preacher from Shenyang city in the northeastern province of Liaoning thinks that the government fears that people of faith will refuse to follow the Communist Party if they read religious books published abroad and not censored by the state. “Therefore, buying religious books from abroad is deemed as foreign ‘religious infiltration,’” the preacher added.
“On top of banning religious books from abroad and ‘sinicizing’ religion, the government is also distorting Bible’s teachings, in an attempt to weaken Christianity, with a goal to eradicate it,” a Three-Self preacher from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian, believes. The police investigated him for buying religious books from Wheat Bookstore. “The government largely fears that its power is unstable, especially in the backdrop of tense relationships with the United States and Taiwan.”
“As a rule, people who buy Christian books are practicing believers, so the government looks into them to determine how dangerous they are to the stability of their regime,” a house church pastor from Shenzhen city in the southern province of Guangdong said. He, too, was summoned for purchasing from Wheat Bookstore. “The Communist Party has done too many shameful deeds and continues to suppress people. Our government has a guilty conscience,” the pastor added.
“I left all church-related groups on WeChat after the police examined all my online activities,” said a house church believer from Guangdong Province, who was investigated for buying a Bible from Wheat Bookstore. “This is persecution. The government wants our thinking to be in line with the core socialist values. But the CCP is atheistic, which conflicts with our belief.”