A Chinese New Year of 'weaponised surveillance'

(Photo: Unsplash/zhang kaiyv)

China celebrated its New Year on Sunday but for the country's Christians, there are fears of yet more oppression and control through technology.

Release International, which has made China its country of particular concern for 2023, says that "weaponised surveillance" is making life increasingly difficult for Christians.

Bob Fu, a partner of Release International, said that "techno-authoritarianism" in China "has begun to reach new extremes" since Xi Jinping entered his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"The Chinese government has steadily increased the oppression and control of Christians, particularly through the use of technology," Mr Fu told the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month.

Speaking to Release International, he said that the Chinese Communist Party is using hundreds of millions of face-recognition cameras to monitor its citizens.

"They are all over China, including all the four walls of the church building and pulpits and every corner of the street," he said.

"They have the ability to collect digital prints and DNA with a national database. So virtually wherever you go, for every Chinese citizen, there are at least two digital face-recognition cameras following your every step."

The technology is even being used to track citizens' movements outside China, he said.

"AI is being weaponised in the growing transnational repression of Chinese Christians around the world," he said.

"This is China reaching across borders to silence dissidents through illegal deportations, abductions, digital threats, and family intimidation."

A new law has also led to increased online censorship and is affecting Christian users of WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging platform.

Last year, a book recommendation on WeChat was blocked because it used the word 'Christ'. In another incident, a pastor was arrested after holding a baptism service. The police used a video downloaded from WeChat as supposed evidence of his crime.

Pastor Mao Zhibin, who majored in information management at university, said that with the data collected from WeChat and the millions of surveillance cameras, the power at the fingertips of the Chinese government "is way beyond any other totalitarian regime".

With Covid still presenting challenges in China, Release International fears it will continue to be used by the CCP as an excuse to crackdown further on Christian gatherings and activities, both in-person and online.

Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International, said, "The government under Xi Jinping has embarked on a process of Sinicisation – to make everything more Chinese and to bring all things more tightly under its control.

"The officially atheist Communist Party portrays Christianity as unpatriotic and pro-Western, and therefore a threat. And what they can't control, they seek to eliminate."