04/13/2024, 16.09
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Online Sinicisation: Search for Martin Luther and Calvin sets off warning, error messages

An Evangelical NGO, ChinaAid, reports that a Chinese Christian who tried to use an automatic online translator to read information about the Protestant Reformation was flashed an ominous warning from China’s Internet agency that every “religion must adapt to Chinese socialist society.” China’s repression against house churches not compliant to the patriotic movement face digital scrutiny.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Online machine translation systems are becoming the new frontier for China’s nationalist policy of “sinicisation of religions” imposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, this according to the China Aid Association (ChinaAid), an evangelical group that advocates for religious freedom in China, especially house churches, i.e. Protestant communities that refuse to submit to the Three-Self Movement, the "official" patriotic Protestant organisation controlled by the Communist Party of China.

ChinaAid recently reported the story of a Chinese Christian who tried to use an online search service to translate content related to the Protestant Reformation, in particular Martin Luther and Calvin. When they tried to translate content, that set off a warning from China’s Internet watchdog to abide by the core values of socialism.

According to CNNIC, “When translating any content, Chinese people must strictly abide by national laws and regulations, adhere to the core socialist values, actively spread positive energy, and safeguard the country’s cultural security and ideological security. Regarding religious content, we should uphold a scientific spirit and attitude, respect history, and respect the freedom of belief under different cultural backgrounds.”

The message went further: “At the same time, we must also recognize soberly that any religion must adapt to Chinese socialist society. In China, we encourage religious groups and believers to love their country and religion, actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society, and contribute to promoting social harmony, national unity, and cultural prosperity.”

It should be stressed that the content the Christian sought to translate did not concern national security. It was simply a text about Martin Luther (1483-1546), focused on his personal doubts and the spiritual struggles that led him to call for the reform of the Catholic Church, and to his famous theses.

It seems that the mere use of words such as "challenge", "struggle", "reform" and "autonomy" in a relatively short passage triggered a warning against sensitive words in Chinese translation tools.

What is more, the Christian quoted by ChinaAid, whose name was withheld for obvious security reasons, said that “three chapters related to Calvin [. . .] cannot be translated, with a warning of content risk”.

In this case, the system completely stopped the translation, showing a message that read: “Error: Unable to retrieve data from the translation engine API.”  Again, the content of the translation in question was related only to the introduction to Calvin's life.

In China, several house church pastors who adhere to the Reformed faith are currently in detention. The most famous is Rev Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to nine years in prison.

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