USCIRF: China Trains its ‘Orwellian Surveillance State’ on Christians

Chinese Catholics attend a mass on Holy Saturday, part of Easter celebrations at Beijing's government sanctioned South Cathedral on March 31, 2018. Chinese Catholics are taking part in Easter celebrations as China and the Vatican continue talks on a historic agreement on the appointment of bishops in China. / AFP …
GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government has created “an Orwellian surveillance state with an unprecedented ability to gather private information about its citizens,” which it is now using to monitor Christians, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported Wednesday.

The USCIRF conducted a virtual hearing Wednesday on “the Chinese government’s use of surveillance and data analytic technology to oppress religious groups” and how the U.S. government should respond to this latest attack on religious freedom.

The independent, non-partisan Commission observed that the Chinese government has “installed hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras across the country, using facial and voice recognition systems to distinguish and track Uyghurs and Tibetans.”

“In addition, authorities have systematically installed cameras in churches to identify and target anyone who attends services,” it noted.

Moreover, “China’s exportation of its surveillance technology and repressive model holds dire implications for religious freedom around the world,” it said.

In her opening remarks, the Commission’s chairperson, Gayle Manchin, noted that religious freedom in China has only gotten worse under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

“I would like to begin by acknowledging the tremendous suffering the people of China have experienced under the Chinese Communist government,” Ms. Manchin said. “USCIRF has been warning about religious freedom violations in China since the Commission was created in 1998, and the situation has only deteriorated since then.”

“Throughout the country, Chinese authorities have raided underground house churches, arrested Christians who refuse to join the state-run churches, and banned children younger than 18 years old from attending services,” Manchin noted.

With the proper safeguards and oversight, new and emerging technologies can be harnessed for the good of society, she said. “However, that is not what we are seeing today in China, where the Communist Party is deliberately using technology to undermine religious freedom and other fundamental rights.”

For his part, Vice Chair Tony Perkins observed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses artificial intelligence systems combining information from video surveillance, facial and voice recognition, GPS tracking, and other data “in order to track certain religious communities.”

“Authorities even installed cameras on the pulpits of churches and other houses of worship, allowing the Party to identify and monitor anyone who attends services,” Mr. Perkins said.

Chris Meserole, Deputy Director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, noted how the CCP has harnessed digital technologies to make its repression of religion more effective.

“As with authoritarians elsewhere, the CCP has long been able to repress public forms of religious organizations, practices, identities, and beliefs, particularly in urban areas,” Mr. Meserole declared. “But private forms of religiosity, including those practiced within one’s home, have proven more difficult to monitor and repress.”

“Digital technologies have changed that,” he noted. “As processors, sensors, and cameras have proliferated, the extent of religious life that the CCP can surveil has expanded dramatically.”

“The United States can and must push back against the technological surveillance of religion by the CCP, and digital authoritarianism more broadly,” Meserole concluded. “We owe it to the victims of religious repression in those regions to ensure that their experiences remain an exception rather than a normalized form of social and political control.”

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