THE ROOTS OF THIS INTRUSION go back to 2015, when China started to strengthen its video surveillance network to “prevent violence, terrorist attacks, and extreme events.” At the time, the State Administration for Religious Affairs released a document announcing its plan to cover the public area of key religious sites with surveillance cameras. Yet the document also said it “needed to pay attention to and respect the view of the religious community, consider the unique considerations of various religious sites, and avoid conflict.”
Online discussions about the government monitoring of churches are illegal in mainland China, but a Hong Kong website, Stand News, posted articles about the topic, including an op-ed by Ying Fuk Tsang, professor at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He argues churches are semi-public spaces, and so if the government truly wanted surveillance cameras in place for security purposes, “the owner of the religious site should be responsible for it and place it in accordance with their own security needs, in suitable places … and times.”
The use of surveillance cameras has risen worldwide, in many cases successfully deterring crime and catching criminals. For instance, U.K. police officers used footage from traffic cameras to recreate the Westminster Bridge attack in March, when Muslim terrorist Khalid Masood killed four persons and injured two dozen after driving a car into a crowd of pedestrians and stabbing a Parliament police officer. The United Kingdom has an estimated 5 million CCTVs, covering streets, schools, hospitals, and public transportation.
Yet in China, where an estimated 20 to 30 million surveillance cameras watch over its citizens, the cameras can have more sinister purposes. Authorities use cameras to monitor dissidents, often setting cameras up outside their homes to track their movements. Blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng wrote that police set up numerous surveillance cameras pointed at his home and yard to ensure he would not escape house arrest (he eventually did).
In 2005, China started building a nationwide surveillance system they dubbed “Skynet,” after the computer system in the Terminator films that attacks mankind. While officials claim the cameras help catch criminals, the authorities have at times been unwilling to release footage in the case of suspicious deaths. For instance, in 2015 when the body of an underground Catholic priest was found floating in a river in Shanxi province, officials claimed it was a suicide but would not allow Father Pedro Yu Heping’s family to see the surveillance camera footage of Yu’s last moments. Friends and family found it unlikely that Yu would kill himself and suspected foul play, as Yu had created a popular Catholic news website that the government shut down.
Chinese surveillance could reach overseas as well, as the Chinese government controls the world’s largest supplier of video surveillance equipment, Hikvision. The company’s products can see through fog and darkness, read license plates, and recognize faces in a crowd. In the United States, prisons, airports, private homes, and even Fort Leonard Wood Army post in Missouri use Hikvision systems, according to Voice of America (VOA).
The use of Hikvision systems raises serious security concerns: The Hangzhou-based company started out as a research institute of the Chinese government, and its R&D head, Pu Shiliang, is also the director of a technology lab in the Ministry of Public Security, according to VOA. Hikvision may have created a “back door” to its devices during the production process that would allow the company to access the cameras remotely. The Chinese government could use the cameras to spy on sensitive documents and track dissidents living overseas.
Back in Wenzhou, church leaders are unsure of what the government plans to do with what it captures on the cameras. Liu said the church doesn’t plan on changing its sermons or doing anything different even if the cameras are eventually connected, except for keeping foreign pastors from preaching at the pulpit. Instead, they would just teach in a different location not covered by cameras.
—with reporting by Robert Katz in Wenzhou, China