Net prophets struggle in China

Dodging the censors is an art

Posted by Yixiu Qingfeng, a Catholic webmaster in China

Online evangelization in China has not developed much and even appears to be at a standstill. Not surprising, perhaps, in a country where internet access is severely curtailed thanks to its infamous Great Firewall.

Most netizens know there is a way to “scale the wall” but even so, if you are a webmaster of any mainland Catholic website, you are likely to have had your site being accidentally blocked or been invited to “have a cup of tea” with security officials.

There are hundreds of large and small Catholic websites in China but more than half of them are no longer active and sites that are unique with frequent updates are very few.

In our diocese, management does not attach any importance to online evangelization, there is no clear direction for future development, or there is a lack of professional webmasters.

A fellow webmaster once told me his bishop allowed them to run a website but never gave support and he was powerless. “We had no money and we did not know who to turn to. The website was often being shut down but no one responded in timely fashion.”

This situation is common to many Catholic websites. But why do dioceses not pay attention? Why there is no payoff even when support is given?

Political pressure has brought many internal problems to the Church. The “open” Church community is subject to government interference, even in the area of evangelization, while the “underground” community feels no love from its father (Rome) nor its mother (China) and thus has no motivation – or the time – to promote online evangelization. Coupled with conflicts between the two communities and their own internal frictions, few people have the mind to attend to this work.

You can see what I mean from different websites. The domestic Church news they carry is “very harmonious.” They sing praise to the diocesan leaders and to the merits of the dioceses. Of course, this is not a bad thing, but there is no independence at all.

Moreover, the underground community-managed sites seldom report news of the open community and vice versa. A priest explained that “We should not report on that otherwise it may mislead our faithful that we have been united.”

It is also unacceptable to report on bad news of the Church as it would “seriously hurt the feelings of the Catholics.” Covering up mistakes is said to be upholding the reputation of the Church. Though we often complain that the news of state media is too unreal, we are also walking this path that is full of the color of the so-called “Chinese characteristics.” The fourth estate has difficulty gaining a foothold in the China Church too.

Some bishops and elderly priests even think the internet is not a good thing. To them, browsing the internet means playing and wasting time. They have no concept of online evangelization. These all limit the development of Chinese Catholic websites.

Catholic websites endure the difficulties even with so many negative factors.

A leading one is Tianzhujiao Zaixian (Catholic online), which is one of the oldest Catholic websites in mainland China and so far the only portal. It is content-rich and is updated in a timely manner. It dares to disclose disagreeable phenomena in the Church. Compared to other sites, it has greater independence. It is not easy for it to survive in China.

But a webmaster of Zaixian told me that since they position themselves as an online portal, providing all kinds of information, and thus is too extensive rather than intensive.

Another former Zaixian webmaster said its website has never developed its own characteristics. Their news basically are aggregated from different sources – which is a common weakness of mainland Catholic websites.

Another popular Catholic website Tianren Rainbow Bridge, launched in 2002, is in a dilemma while looking for a breakthrough. A revamp of its site which began several years ago has still not completed. Several internet companies terminated their partnership halfway. These companies do not understand the stricter requirements for a Catholic website as they do not understand the Church.

Creating a website needs constant communication to achieve long-term needs. No one has such time and energy to linger on. The lack of a variety of professionals to run a Catholic website or revamping it is always a pain for all webmasters.

But does the problem really lie with the lack of talented people? What a former webmaster of Tianren said may be correct: “Web management must turn into the form of business management before they can succeed.”

So this implies the need of huge capital investment, full-time webmasters, technical workers, professional journalists and audio-visual producers. Insiders know that each of these mean “burning money.” So far, I do not see any diocese that has invested a lot of capital to create and run a website.

Since we do not have much ability to resolve these problems, other cheaper ways for evangelization, such as massive text messaging, blogs, forums, chatrooms and QQ instant messenger come in full swing.

But yet, they lack a backbone. Only until a site management system is available, all the other online evangelization tools will cohere together naturally. And only by that time the real era of online evangelization will come.


Filed under China, Evangelism