By Bethany Allen Foreign Policy
WASHINGTON — It’s easier to talk about Jesus than Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping on Weibo, China’s massive Twitter-like social media platform.
The atheist Chinese Communist Party, known for its sometimes heavy-handed policies towards religions, from Islam to Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism, seems far more willing to allow Christian terminology to appear on Weibo than Communist argot, according to data taken from search results on the platform conducted April 3. For example, a search for the word “Bible” yielded over 17 million recent results, while the iconic “Quotations of Chairman Mao,” a widely distributed collection of writings by the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party known in the West as the “Little Red Book,” received fewer than 60,000 mentions. “Christian congregation” was mentioned over 41.8 million times, whereas “the Communist Party” clocked in at just 5.3 million mentions.
The small army of Chinese government censors, whose ranks are estimated to number 100,000, likely plays a role in this surprising disparity. Posts containing content deemed “politically sensitive” are often deleted, as are many posts containing the names of China’s top leaders, perhaps as a measure to deflect controversy and criticism. Chinese state-run media run top headlines featuring the Chinese president almost daily, yet “Xi Jinping” only received around 4 million Weibo mentions — compare this to “Jesus,” certainly no regular newspaper headliner in China, which yielded over 18 million mentions.
That’s not to say that Christian content is free of censorship. A search for the term “underground church,” referring to Christian congregations in China that refuse to register as one of the state-sanctioned churches, produces a blank search page with a notice reading, “results cannot be displayed due to relevant laws and regulations.”
Lack of interest in Communist ideology, and rising interest in Christianity, may also help explain the relative frequency of Christian-related Weibo content. Christianity has grown rapidly in China for more than two decades, and while official government estimates put the total number of Chinese Christians at 25 million, many outside observers agree that the real number may be closer to 60 million.
While not an exact science — Weibo search result tallies are subject to the daily exigencies of both user trends and the actions of censors — the comparative search data demonstrates that Christian-related content is either more popular or more permissible on Weibo than Communist-related content. Chatter about religion may make the Chinese government queasy, and occasionally terrified, but it’s politics that keeps its leaders (and censors) awake at night.
Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy’s blog about news and major trends in China.