©GILLES SABRIÉ/The New York Times/Redux/lai

China’s Big Brother against religious freedom

Beijing is on track to have one CCTV camera for nearly every two people as the Communist Party pushes for Big-Brother-style state surveillance. The country’s 1.4 billion population are set to be carefully watched by 626 million street monitors – many having facial-recognition functions, a study has revealed. China is going to control everyone and everything. All public and private aspects of life will be controlled, including religious freedom.

“No regime in history has been more successful in making George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 a reality than the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, the apparatus of repression constructed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in recent years is so fine- tuned, pervasive, and technologically sophisticated that it makes “Big Brother” appear amateurish,” denounces the last report on religious freedom around the world published by Aid to the Church in Need, a Pontificial Foundation of the catholic Church.

Though first introduced in China’s restive Xinjiang province as a means of policing its mostly Muslim Uyghur population, elements of the CCP’s surveillance state are rapidly being introduced across the entire nation of 1.4 billion. One aspect, “Sharp Eyes”, is the proliferation of highly sophisticated security cameras and data scanners. Unlike traditional CCTV cameras, the new devices are capable of giving police high resolution images of individual faces. In Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, police installed more than 18,000 facial recognition cameras covering about 3,500 of the city’s residential complexes.

The most egregious violation of religious freedom is that perpetrated against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang state. As part of a “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” programme, approximately one million out of a total population of 13 million Turkic Muslims are imprisoned in “re-education camps” and subject to “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment”. Those on the outside are exposed to an enforced collection of biometric data, tracking via omnipresent cameras augmented with AI-enabled facial recognition, and software which records, translates and transcribes voice messages – tools which enable targeted government repression. As stated in a 2018 Human Rights Watch report: “Inside, people are punished for peacefully practicing religion; outside, the government’s religious restrictions are so stringent that it has effectively outlawed Islam.”

The surveillance-for-repression technologies target Christians as well. Reports indicate that at the end of 2020, “more than 200 facial recognition cameras were installed in churches and temples in one Jiangxi Province county”: 50 of these were in the state registered Three-Self churches, and nearly 50 were in 16 Buddhist and Taoist places of worship. Churches that refuse, such as the Zion Church, one of Beijing’s largest unregistered house churches, have been closed.

The social credit concept has been extended to include religious leaders. On 9th February 2021, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) launched a database, applicable to all faith groups, called the Administrative Measures for Religious Personnel, containing information on clergy, monks, priests and bishops. The system “will record ‘rewards’, ‘punishments’ received, including ‘the revocation’ of their ministry and ‘other information’”. These faith leaders will “have the obligation to ‘support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system’, ‘resist illegal religious activities and religious extremism and resist infiltration of foreign forces that use religion’”.

Samuel Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom – quoted in the report of Aid to the Church in Need – warned that China’s methods represent “the future of religious oppression”, adding that eventually, religious minorities are “going to be oppressed by a system where they can’t live and work in the society and continue to practice their faith.”

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