ROME, Italy — The Vatican revealed this week that Catholics in China were able to use the most popular Chinese state-monitored social media platform, WeChat, to livestream Pope Francis’ daily Mass during the coronavirus pandemic.
An expert on Chinese media has cautioned that the Chinese regime may have had something to gain in granting Chinese Catholics this limited access to the pope.
WeChat is known for its censorship of its more than 1 billion monthly active users. The Chinese government is able to monitor all discussion, content, and user data on the app.
Vatican News released a video on May 20 showing Catholics in China gathered around smartphones and computer monitors placed on home altars or inside of churches praying with Pope Francis’ livestreamed liturgies, which could be accessed via WhatsApp via simultaneous translation into Chinese.
By the time that the video was published, the limited 52-day period in which the livestream was available to Chinese viewers, March 27 to May 18, had already come to an end.
A Chinese Catholic living in Jilin Province confirmed to CNA that the Vatican News website is now available in China both on WeChat and Weibo, often called the Chinese Twitter.
“I have found that social media like Weibo has been very friendly to the Church since the beginning of this year,” she said.
The Holy See and the Chinese government signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of bishops in the state-sponsored Church, the terms of which have still not been publicly released. In the wake of the deal, previously excommunicated bishops of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which is overseen by the Communist Party, were received into full communion with the Vatican.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst who monitors media censorship and religious freedom in China for Freedom House, explained to CNA that the livestream of the pope’s Mass in China could have been the fruit of the ongoing dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinese government.
“This type of engagement for the pope with Chinese believers directly is exactly what the Vatican was hoping to achieve through its rapprochement with the Chinese government,” she said.
“By allowing it, it may be giving Beijing more leverage to obtain what it wants in the future, such as approval of certain bishops or reduced Vatican criticism of ongoing persecution of Catholics in China. So there are good reasons why allowing this kind of relatively innocuous and temporary gesture would be in Beijing's interests,” Cook told CNA.
Vatican News reported that the number of viewers of Pope Francis’ Mass in China increased daily, reaching more than 10,000 viewers on WeChat before the Vatican stopped livestreaming the Mass.
“If this was something temporary then that might have made it easier for the Chinese government to accept,” Cook said. “Scale may also have been a factor.”
“Ten thousand is still fairly low by Chinese standards,” she added.
China is home to more than 10 million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, according to official statistics.
“Often the sensitivities surrounding officially recognized religions and even other groups in China are triggered by growing popularity,” Cook said. “My sense is that if the broadcasts had continued and began reaching an even bigger audience, say hundreds of thousands or a million people, then it would have been shut down at some point.”
“Crackdowns on other religious groups and even information sharing or online preaching have continued amid the pandemic,” she added, particularly for Protestants and other persecuted religious groups in China, such as the Falun Gong.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the human rights group Voice of the Martyrs reported that government officials in Shandong Province banned online preaching amid the outbreak, and the Christian non-profit ChinaAid shared a video March 15 of a Protestant church in Jiangsu Province that had been demolished by Chinese authorities.
The Chinese government has also used social media platforms to help monitor and detain Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Data showing which WhatsApp users followed the pope’s livestream Mass could be accessed by the Chinese government in the future, Cook acknowledged, while noting that “Catholicism is an approved religion in China and most people don't run into trouble for attending Mass at a state-sanctioned church.”
“With improving relations between the Chinese government and Vatican, I imagine that the pope is not as sensitive a figure as he previously was. So I don't imagine people would get in trouble just for watching this,” she said.
Among the government regulations of the state-sanctioned Catholic churches in China is a prohibition on minors under the age of 18 from entering church property.
Cook noted that while children could be seen praying in the Vatican News video, this is “one part of religious regulations that has often slipped through the cracks in the past in terms of enforcement, so that may be the case now.”
A report by the U.S. China Commission in January found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the Vatican-China deal. It said the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.
In February, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, met with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The Holy See press office reported that the meeting was an occasion for “renewing the willingness to continue the institutional dialogue” between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party.
The Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica announced in April that it was launching a version in simplified Chinese.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, praised the decision to launch the Chinese edition in a letter to La Civiltà Cattolica.
“I can only express from the depths of my heart my warmest best wishes and the fervent hope that your Chinese language edition might become a solid instrument of mutual cultural and scientific enrichment, among all people in search of beauty and truth,” Parolin said.
The first papal liturgy to be viewed over WeChat in China was Pope Francis’ extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27 for the world suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.
Vatican News reported that in China the news that the live broadcast of the pope’s Mass would end on May 18 was “greeted with some suffering and also with some tears.”
While some Catholics in China are sad to lose access to the livestream Mass, the greater problem for most Chinese Catholics is that Catholic churches, seminaries, and all pilgrimage activities in China remain suspended.
China closed churches beginning in January, as the coronavirus outbreak spread throughout the country. But after the nationwide quarantine was eased in March and epicenter Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted on April 8, Asia News reports that Catholic churches were told to remain closed through the end of May by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.