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Why Christianity has been pushed underground in China

The Chinese government just banned the online sale of Bibles, yet another attempt at President Xi's suppression of Christianity.

During the week, I collect articles on my browser to be read later. “Later” often implies Saturday, when I have more time to sift through pieces I’m interested in catching up on. Neither of the two I just read inspire much hope about free speech.

First, there’s this piece on autocratic leaders pushing Hungary and Poland away from democracy. Being that 75 percent of my heritage derives from these two countries, I’ve followed the rise of Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kazcynski over the last few years. The latest news is not inspiring. A succinct summation:

"“Hungary First” is Orban’s election slogan. His relentless anti-immigrant campaign, including claims from a cabinet minister that migrants and refugees would force Hungarians to eat insects, has produced a startling level of fear. Csaba Toth, a political scientist, told me that “children in kindergarten have drawn Soros as the devil and migrants as evil figures who will take you away if you are not good.”

Poland is not in better shape. In both cases, free speech is restricted, and becoming more so, which leads to the second article, this one much closer to home: the Department of Homeland Security is now creating a database of journalists.

The United States government, traditionally one of the bastions of press freedom, is about to compile a list of professional journalists and "top media influencers," which would seem to include bloggers and podcasters, and monitor what they’re putting out to the public.

The problem with becoming too comfortable with how your society functions is that others have vested interests in exploiting your comfort. By the time you’ve realized what’s been lost it’s too late. This is the America we’re currently occupying, pretending it isn't happening day after day.

A Chinese Catholic deacon holds a Bible at the Palm Sunday Mass during the Easter Holy Week at an 'underground' or 'unofficial' church on April 9, 2017 near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Unlike America—at least unlike what America has professed itself to be—China makes no pretensions about free speech, especially when it comes to religion. Whereas in America certain religions influence legislation to an uncomfortable degree, Chinese officials are operating in the opposite manner. While the battle between the Communist Party and Christianity is quite old, the nation recently took another step towards suppression by banning the online sale of Bibles.

In an effort to promote “traditional values,” the Chinese government has actively been promoting Buddhism and Taoism, as well as folk religions, while clamping down on the spread of Christianity and Islam. This has forced many Christian churches to go underground. While the Times cites the nation as boasting 38 million Protestants and six million Catholics, the data are hard to accurately assess considering the unwillingness of some members to claim their faith.

In fact, other data count up to 115 million Protestants, with a prediction that by 2030 the nation could have a total of 247 million Christians. Including Catholics, that would make Christianity the nation’s most popular religion—a reality President Xi’s administration is fighting against.

Indoctrination becomes a tool when outright suppression isn’t feasible. Preachers have been told to include Communist Party propaganda in their sermons. With a recent law prohibiting unauthorized religious gatherings, handcuffing churches by denying them the ability to collect donations, offer religious ideas online, or instruct children, Xi is attempting to control the religious ideology of nearly 1.4 billion people. Anyone hoping to push back against this initiative will have a long road to religious freedom under this “president for life.” 

Xi is advocating against “overseas infiltrations” from foreign religions, expressing a long-held communist belief that Christianity will undermine the party’s agenda. This is all happening as the government is, ironically, ending a 70-year stand-off with the Vatican. Church leaders, eager to make inroads in China, were criticized for asking bishops to step aside to allow the installation of two state-appointed leaders—one who was excommunicated by the Vatican years ago. 

That’s not the only shady move by the government. In 2014 it began demolishing churches for suspect reasons, such as improper building permits. Churches across the Zhejiang Province were ordered to remove their crosses. Rather than agree to these terms, preachers went underground out of fear of further retribution.

A Chinese Catholic worshippers wait to take communion at the Palm Sunday Mass during the Easter Holy Week at an 'underground' or 'unofficial' church on April 9, 2017 near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Vatican views this dialogue as a sign that better communication might lie ahead. But the track record is not there. Recall, the Chinese government installed its own Panchen Lama as Tibet’s next spiritual leader—the Dalai Lama’s appointment, which represents the mandated succession, was kidnapped by the Chinese government within three days of being named in 1995. Hopes that Xi will budge on Christianity seem futile.

While I’m no fan of many lessons religion offers—at least when it comes to metaphysical ideas—I’ve argued that children (and adults) should be instructed in more religion, not less. Indoctrinating children is one thing; educating them on the diverse religious ideas of the world equips the youth (and people of any age) to grapple with their own spiritual identity while learning to be tolerant of others. You can’t believe your idea is the best if you have no clue what the competition entails. You also can't argue that faith isn't helpful just because it doesn't help you. 

Which is what China is attempting with the suppression of Christianity and Islam. Robbing people of their spiritual values is no way to lead. Given all we know from history, it’s shocking that these leaders don’t recognize that such restrictions never end well. Yet here we can turn to religion for guidance: power corrupts, and the most powerful become stains on the very history they’re praying to be adored for.


Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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