BACKGROUNDER |A WINDOW INTO THE SOUL: CHINA'S THREAT TO 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.
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, and the country as a whole was anticipated to have installed some 626 million security cameras mounted in public and private areas by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, scanners installed throughout the country at key pedestrian checkpoints scoop up data from smartphones, unbeknownst to those passing through.
Using special apps on their smartphones, police can then upload the vast data they collect to shared analytical platforms, such as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) currently operational in Xinjiang. The platforms collate and cross-tabulate the collected information, flagging individuals who meet with known “malcontents”, use apps such as WhatsApp that employ encryption, or engage in an unusually high degree of religious activity.
Indeed, the impact on religious freedom is already being felt. Faith groups perceived as a direct challenge to a jealous atheist system are, and will increasingly be, watched. 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.
Another element of China’s surveillance state is a “social credit” system. While there is presently no single integrated nationwide social credit system, several major municipalities (including Beijing) have instituted schemes whereby individuals accumulate reputational points based on their “good” and “bad” behaviours. Bad behaviours can include visiting houses of worship too frequently or failing to help the police identify religious dissidents such as Falun Gong members. Low social credit scores can make it impossible for individuals to purchase train or airline tickets, or secure places for their children in desirable schools. The CCP apparently aspires to impose an integrated social credit system on the entire country.
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, 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.”
Three features of China’s high-tech Leviathan are particularly troubling: (1) rapidly developing technology means that it is inevitable that the system will become even more sophisticated and comprehensive; (2) China is actively exporting elements of its surveillance state to other countries, such as its neighbours in Central Asia; and (3) the system is designed to reward “good” behaviour as well as punish “bad” behaviour.
Of all the aforementioned features, however, possibly the third is the most dangerous since it creates strong incentives for Chinese citizens to cooperate with the regime’s surveillance state, and even to love it, much as Orwell’s fictional character Winston Smith came in the end to love Big Brother. Perhaps the only thing worse than a hated dictatorship, is one that enjoys widespread acceptance, legitimacy, and even affection. As Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee stated: “Communist party leaders are developing a model of technological governance that … would make Orwell blush.”
 “A Surveillance Net Blankets China’s Cities, Giving Police Vast Powers”, by Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik, The New York Times, 17th December 2019; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/17/technology/china-surveillance.html (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “China’s Smart Cities Development”, Research Report Prepared on Behalf of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, SOSi, January 2020; https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/China_Smart_Cities_Development.pdf
 “Data Leviathan: China’s Burgeoning Surveillance State”, by Kenneth Roth and Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch, 16th August 2019; https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/16/data-leviathan-chinas-burgeoning-surveillance-state (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “Night Images Reveal Many New Detention Sites in China’s Xinjiang Region”, New York Times, 24th September 2020; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/24/world/asia/china-muslims-xinjiang-detention.html
 “We must keep up pressure on China over abuse of Turkic Muslims”, The Age, 20th July 2019; https://www.theage.com.au/world/asia/we-must-keep-up-pressure-on-china-over-abuse-of-turkic-muslims-20190719-p528w8.html (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “Eradicating Ideological Viruses, China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims”, Human Rights Watch, 9th September 2018; https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “We must keep up pressure on China over abuse of Turkic Muslims”, Sydney Morning Herald, 20th July 2019; https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/we-must-keep-up-pressure-on-china-over-abuse-of-turkic-muslims-20190719-p528w8.html
 “Eradicating Ideological Viruses, China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims”, op. cit.
 “Facial Recognition Cameras Installed in State-Run Religious Venues” by Yang Luguang, Bitter Winter, 24th October 2020; https://bitterwinter.org/facial-recognition-cameras-installed-in-state-run-religious-venues (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “China: Draft Regulations Limit Sharing Religious Information Online”, 13th September 2018; https://www.csw.org.uk/2018/09/13/press/4069/article.htm
 “The ‘Big Brother’ of religions: Beijing’s new database”, by Wang Zhicheng, Asia News, 10th February 2021; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/The-‘Big-Brother’-of-religions:-Beijing%E2%80%99s-new-database-52311.html (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “China’s use of technology for religious oppression a ‘threat to all of us,’ warns Brownback”, The Christian Post, 25th August 2020; https://www.christianpost.com/news/chinas-use-of-technology-for-religious-oppression-a-threat-to-all-of-us-warns-brownback.html (last accessed on 8th January 2021).
 “China’s Surveillance State Has Eyes on Central Asia”, by Bradley Jardine, Foreign Policy, 15th November 2019; https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/15/huawei-xinjiang-kazakhstan-uzbekistan-china-surveillance-state-eyes-central-asia/; (last accessed on 8th January 2021)
 “From AI to facial recognition: how China is setting the rules in new tech”, by James Kynge and Nian Liu, Financial Times, 7th October, 2020; https://www.ft.com/content/188d86df-6e82-47eb-a134-2e1e45c777b6 (last accessed on 8th January 2021).