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The internet in China – Pros and Cons

Author
Category Articles
Date March 10, 2003

Even many urban believers and church workers if they are living on 5OORMB or less a month are quite unable to purchase a computer. They are still reliant on books and Gospel radio for spiritual nourishment and training

China is set in the near future to have the largest numbers of internet users anywhere in the world. Already she ranks second, after the United States. The number of internet users in China has mushroomed from 8.9 million in 1999 to over 35 million today. At the end of 2001 the number of internet users had increased by 50% from the year before. In the south-western city of Nanning 40% of families are reported to own computers. Many young people are now used to receiving education online, dates online, shopping online and playing computer games online. The government is even listening to the views of ordinary people when formulating policy: when the 10th Five Year Plan for national economic and social development was being drafted, over 10,000 suggestions were sent by the public to websites opened by the central government, of which 300 were taken up by the state Planning Commission. People are also finding jobs over the internet. By 2004 e-commerce volume will jump to US$3.2 billion. (Xinbuanet 28 June)

However, a tragic fire in a Beijing cyber cafe has highlighted the problems facing the government as it struggles to control the popular medium. The fire raged through an internet cafe near Beijing University in mid-June killing 24 people, mainly students. Two young teenagers who had argued with the management are believed to have started the fire. The cafe was a darkened den with heavy security designed for it to escape detection from the street as the owners feared police raids. Iron bars and bolted doors trapped many customers. (Daily Telegraph 17 June)

Since the fire, police in Beijing have cracked down, suspending all cyber cafes in Beijing and placing them, nationwide, under tough restrictions. Unregistered outlets have multiplied to escape increasingly stringent government regulations. In Beijing, only 200 cafes out of 2,400 had licenses; in Guangzhou, only 70 out of more than 1,000 had licenses. In January China had already introduced intrusive internet controls. Service providers were ordered to screen private e-mails for political content and were held responsible for subversive postings on their websites. These regulations created new difficulties for a competitive industry trying to attract more overseas investment. (AFP 21 January)

Now, internet cafes are being ordered to install software that can prevent access to some 500,000 foreign websites and which will alert police when users try to access illicit pages. By strictly limiting the number of gateways with access to the World Wide Web, Beijing has so far found it relatively easy to restrict access. Filtering software has been installed for some time at prominent internet cafes in major urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai but this is now spreading throughout the mainland. If cafes register their customers this allows police to find out the identities of those who have accessed banned sites. Under the new rules, general portal sites must install security programs to screen and copy all e-mail messages sent or received by users. (AFP 29 June) Beijing has long expressed concern about "unhealthy" web content and curbs access to many sites showing pornography, politically subversive material, foreign news and information on spiritual and religious groups, especially the notorious banned Falun Gong movement. However, the manager of the biggest chain of cyber cafes in Beijing said: "We should not ban internet cafes, just like people should not stop eating because food can choke them!"

Many educated young people now surf the web regularly – some have even become addicts! Some teenagers may spend up to half a day online playing games or chatting to friends. "I just can’t control myself!" wrote a student at a Henan teachers’ college. "Now most of the students in our university like surfing online and the price in the net cafe is cheaper than ever – only 1 RMB for one hour." Regular cyber cafe customers report that it is cheaper to surf the internet from such cafes than doing it from home-based computers. In Jiangsu province about 80% of college drop-outs are internet addicts. The China Youth Daily even carried a report about a 15 year old girl from Nanjing who fell in love with a 39-year-old teacher in the United States via e-mail. (SCMP 25 Feb 2002) Worried parents in China are as concerned as those in the West about the pornography and other unhealthy material which their children may be seeing on the internet.

CHRISTIANS AND THE WEB

Access to the internet is sharpening the divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in Chinese society and the smaller Christian community. Some Christians in business or with a good income in the cities are now able to buy computers and surf the internet. This means they are able to download Christian materials from overseas (if they are careful) and print it out and reproduce it for Bible studies and training sessions. Even some house-churches now have their own websites although these are sometimes closed down. On the positive side, this means a widening of horizons and growing awareness of what God is doing world wide. It is a tremendous help to acquiring quality Biblical and theological material and a stimulus to mission and evangelism. Some Christian leaders are selecting materials from overseas and then using them to prepare their own tailor-made theological training courses. This is far better than just uncritically using foreign material which may be culturally unsuited to China even if translated into Chinese. Negatively, however, it may mean more young and untrained Christians have access to dubious or outright heretical materials as they surf the web with little or no discernment.

However, some 70% of all Christians live in the countryside, and are too poor to buy computers. Even many urban believers and church workers if they are living on 5OORMB or less a month are quite unable to purchase a computer. They are still reliant on books and Gospel radio for spiritual nourishment and training.

Overseas, many quality materials are now available on the internet in both "old" characters and the new, simplified script. We have seen works of the early church fathers, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and many others in Chinese. Ministries overseas concerned for the upbuilding of the Chinese church are increasingly seeking creative ways to use the web to provide more. There is a need for diversification. The urgent need to provide Sunday school and children’s work materials springs immediately to mind, as well as tools to enable the Chinese church to reach out more effectively to unreached people groups.

However, with our obsession with technology it would be wrong to see the internet as the final and only answer to the Chinese churches’ problems. It was not so long ago that the "dot.com" bubble burst and many companies went bankrupt through just such an attitude in secular society! Let’s not forget the tens of millions of both urban and rural poor, some even illiterate, who make up the majority of China’s Christians. While computers and the internet are an exciting and increasingly useful tool for the Gospel, the ministry of books, tapes and gospel radio remains a vital necessity. OMF in partnership with Far East Broadcasting Company and Christian Communications Ltd. continues to support the Chinese church strategically in its evangelism and discipleship training using every means possible.

From OMF International

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