Panel: Three IT Technicians Discuss How Churches Should Respond to Online Challenges Under the Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services

A person works on their laptop on a desk.
A person works on their laptop on a desk. (photo:
By Ruth WangJuly 26th, 2022

On March 1, 2022, the “Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services”, published in December last year, officially came into effect. All provinces and cities across China successively made notifications, tests, and issued certificates. Particularly in Guangdong, Zhejiang, and other developed regions in the economy and information technology, the progress was faster. Different legal organizations such as religious groups, religious venues, religious colleges, and companies have obtained Internet religious information service licenses.

Brother Xie, Hu, and Liu are all Christian professionals who have been engaged in IT technology for many years. A few days ago, they had a technical dialogue and explained their understanding of some terms in the Measures, and gave suggestions on how the churches should be responded to the Measures with the Christian Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper.

Christian Times: Brother Xie, would you please share with us the essence of the “Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services”?

Brother Xie: The “Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services” jointly issued by multiple ministries and commissions is a detailed system aiming at the particularity of religious content. The superior legislation is the "Administrative Measures for Internet Information Services." Contents such as domain name filing, information security, and real-name authentication are not mentioned in the Measures but are detailed in the upper-level law, which must be complied with first.

Concerning the contents, we should pay special attention to several key points. For example, Article 6 stipulates that the license should be obtained for providing information about religious teachings, religious knowledge, religious culture, and religious activities to the public in the form of texts, pictures, audios, and videos through internet websites, application programs, forums, blogs, micro-blogs, official accounts, instant messengers and live webcasts.

There are different understandings in this article. Several points must be clarified:

First, religious information can be spread to the public;

Second, the contents must be the information about religious knowledge, religious culture, and religious activities (note that it is not religious activities, nor preaching classics, but the information). It can be understood as "information that can be communicated under the license". The communication platform must also obtain an Internet religious information service license.

Another key point is Articles 15 to 17:

Article 15 The religious groups, religious colleges and temples, and churches that have obtained the license for Internet Religious Information Service can and only can have religious staff and teachers of religious colleges and universities teaching and sermon through their self-built websites, Apps, forums, etc., to explain the contents of doctrines and regulations that are conducive to social harmony, the progress of the times, health and civilization, and guide religious citizens to be patriotic and law-abiding. Participants in lectures and sermons are authenticated with their real names.

Article 16 Religious colleges and universities that have obtained the license can only carry out religious education and training for students and religious staff in religious colleges and universities through their self-built dedicated websites, Apps, forums, etc. Dedicated websites, Apps, forums, etc. must be connected by the virtual private network, and the identity of the personnel participating in education and training should be verified.

This means that even after obtaining the license, you are not necessarily allowed to do missionary work, lecture, preach or develop more believers online. Article 15 stipulates "... can and only can have religious staff and teachers of religious colleges and universities teaching and sermon through their self-built websites, Apps, forums, etc."

That means after obtaining the license, religious institutions, religious groups, and churches must give lectures and conduct training courses on self-built online platforms. Article 15 and 16 make it clear that both the sender and the receiver of the content need to be authenticated.

Article 17 further clearly states that for the Christian church, worship, praise, fellowship, preaching, and lessons are all regulated.

Article 18 and Article 19 are also very strict regulations. Article 18 says, “No organization or individual may set up religious organizations, religious colleges, and places for religious activities, or develop believers on the Internet.”

If a newcomer comes into contact with the church through the Internet, they are developed on the internet in a strict sense. Will there be any controversy?

According to the Measures, after obtaining the license, if the church preaches through the Internet, it needs its self-built platform. The understanding of "self-built" is closely related to the IT field, but the official interpretation is not seen yet.

Christian Times: What needs to be defined as "self-built" from the system client to the hardware deployment?

Brother Hu: From my preliminary understanding, there are two obvious differences from the current general church practice.

The first point is that the church needs not only a domain name but also a certificate or license to build a website so that it can be filed.

Second, with the license, public platforms such as WeChat and WeChat official accounts can be used to publish religious-related knowledge and information. However, WeChat and Weibo platforms must also obtain the license.

Based on these two points, the point is the "self-built platform" for preaching. My understanding is as follows:

The first is that it should not be a public platform or a platform of a third party. The platform should be owned, funded, and planned by the licensee.

Second, the licensees should take responsibility for the production, review, release, and management of contents.

Third, the self-built system is defined as the virtual professional network in Article 16, which means that it can only be used by people in colleges or churches, and cannot be accessed by the public at will.

The whole religious community, such as the church, has a very low internet penetration rate at present. For example, pandemic prevention and control measures ask believers to make an appointment to go to church. If you make an appointment on the public platform of the provincial Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee, the platform will not display the participants’ list, which would make the church unable to comply with the regulation of the local management department that the participants’ list should be provided due to the pandemic control requirements.

Besides, the churches rarely have a network office system. For example, there would be no idea of the number of priests and sermons, the idea of pastoral care, and the pastoring records five years, 10 years, or 20 years ago for a century-old church. There is no record of believers’ attendance, attending courses, spiritual growth, and changes either as they have the freedom to come and go in the church. The church has no idea and has never made records.

In medical and other fields, it is clear how many people have high blood pressure and diabetes among the elderly and people with chronic diseases in this area and whether they have had a physical examination, and also how many children in kindergartens are anemic or not up to standard in development. In the church, you may not know their names even as you meet them every day, as the church information management is seriously behind the times.

With the self-built system, these problems will be fundamentally solved, and online pastoring will become possible. It used to be done by WeChat groups, but the communication tool would still lose the previous recordings even with a high penetration rate.

The self-built platform can be maintained and managed, and it is clear who has read the content, who has attended the party, who are the believers, and how many believers have left. So there are pros and cons. It depends on how we look at it.

Brother Xie: From the user's experience, I think at least the self-built system should be an independent program and can be installed and operated independently. Second, when users log in, they reach their church, instead of having multiple hotels (churches) to choose from like Ctrip.

Brother Wei: I quite agree with your opinions, especially about the self-built system.

Christian Times: Are the churches you have come into contact with willing to build their systems?

Brother Xie: I think everyone feels the need now, but they still don't know how to do it.

Christian Times: Do you have any plans or suggestions in this regard?

Brother Xie: As IT staff believers, we have this willingness to help build their systems and be entrusted to help churches develop their programs.

Christian Times: As builders of the self-built systems, do you need to apply for a license?

Brother Xie: I don't think it is covered by the Measures. We are only providing technical services now, not operating a religious network platform. It is like the church needs to apply for religious land to build a church, but the construction company does not need a religious business license to build the church.

Christian Times: September 1 is a key date for the implementation of the Measures. If one doesn’t get a license, including third-party platforms, could they publish religious information?

Brother Xie: I think there are three levels: First, there are laws to abide by; second, the laws must be abided by, and third, those who break the law must be punished. We are now at level 1 as we have the law, but there is no way to predict whether the law should be fully complied with or if those who break the law should be punished.

- Translated by Oliver Zuo 

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