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Under Big Brother’s eye

The Chinese government escalates tensions with Christians by installing government cameras at churches

Under Big Brother’s eye

Parishioners attend a prayer vigil at Lower Dafei Catholic Church in Zhejiang province. (Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein)

A video filmed on a shaky cell phone captured Chinese police decked out in riot gear clamoring over the wall of Chengan Church in Wenzhou in the darkness of night to install surveillance cameras inside the church building. Worship singing heard in the background soon gives way to shouting as a scuffle breaks out between the police and church members trying to protect their church. In another video, a police officer swings an ax to break the padlocked gate of Xiaying Church as parishioners watch from inside.

These scenes from late March seem like a replay from three years ago, when officials broke through both human and architectural barriers to tear down crosses from atop churches in Wenzhou and throughout Zhejiang province, destroying a total of about 2,000 crosses. Since then, tensions between church and state have remained high: Last year authorities demanded churches hang Chinese flags inside their sanctuaries, and now officials announced they will install surveillance cameras inside the churches to monitor their movements. To add insult to injury, the churches must pay more than $1,000 to cover the cost of the cameras.

Authorities claim the installation of cameras is an extension of China’s goal to cover the nation with a network of surveillance cameras by 2020 to “maintain national security” and “prevent acts of terrorism.” Already, cameras blanket sensitive regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, many set up inside temples and mosques. The capital city of Beijing is considered 100 percent covered, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, with cameras peering into “every corner” of the capital. Yet in Zhejiang, churches are finding peaceful ways to fight back and keep Big Brother’s watchful eye out of their sanctuaries.

Associated Press/Photo by Didi Tang

Wuxi Christian Church in 2014, with the words “Church of Jesus” in red, in Zhejiang province. (Associated Press/Photo by Didi Tang)

It wasn’t always like this in the port city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. The city is known for its wealthy businessmen and its large proportion of Christians, who make up 11 percent of the population, six times higher than the national average. Churches enjoyed religious freedom unheard of in other areas of China: Rather than the typical split between official Three-Self churches and house churches, Wenzhou has a unique setup—a church could register its building as a place of worship, but the church itself remained independent from the government. Large churches with bright red crosses dotted the city, factory owners preached on Sundays, and even local officials attended church.

In 2014 when police showed up at churches with bulldozers and cranes to “beautify” the city and rid it of illegal structures, believers in registered and unregistered churches banded together to oppose the demolitions. Some locked arms to block police from entering their churches; others used social media to speak out against the government actions. Videos spread of Christians with matching T-shirts walking through the streets holding small wooden crosses—all risky actions in a country where demonstrations are prohibited.

In response, authorities arrested many church leaders including Pastor Gu Yuese, who leads the largest Three-Self church in China, Chongyi Church in Hangzhou. After Gu wrote an open letter criticizing the cross removal policy, authorities arrested him on embezzlement charges. Formerly the provincial head of the official China Christian Council, Gu is the highest-ranking religious official arrested since the Cultural Revolution.

ImagineChina via AP

Classes monitored by surveillance cameras are displayed in a control room at Lanxiang Vocational School in Shandong province. (ImagineChina via AP)

Yet the installation of surveillance cameras, which affects both Three-Self and house churches, is a significant escalation in the restriction of religious freedom. The cameras have high-tech facial recognition technology that can track who is showing up at a church and giving tithes. The church’s every move will now be subjected to monitoring by the Public Security Bureau.

Daniel Liu, a Wenzhou church leader and successful factory owner, was shocked when officials first approached him last month with an ultimatum: Pay to have the cameras installed or else they would shutter the 1,200-person church. Liu (WORLD changed his name for his safety) found it offensive that the Chinese government would view peaceful Christians as potential terrorists—especially as the church building is registered—and worried the presence of cameras would scare off churchgoers.

Two weeks later officials returned to install four surveillance cameras on the church property: one outside pointed at the door, one facing the pulpit, one facing the congregation, and one directly over the tithe box. While the church allowed the government to connect lines to the camera outside the building, they’ve set rotating teams of church members to guard the church 24 hours a day to ensure officials don’t hook up the cameras inside the building.

In another Wenzhou church where the cameras have already been connected, church leaders resisted by unplugging two of the cameras and pointing a third camera onto the church’s ceiling so the government couldn’t spy on their activities.

Some churches took more public steps: Shengai Church, issued a statement on March 23 accusing the government of illegally violating the church’s privacy and disrupting internal affairs by installing the cameras, according to the Texas-based advocacy group China Aid. Some churches said government officials installed cameras in their meeting rooms and offices, which would allow the government to spy on private discussions and view private documents. Shengai Church noted the government did not have any legal basis for its actions and forcibly installed the cameras without the church’s permission.

Robert Katz

A government official installs cameras at a Wenzhou church. (Robert Katz)

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

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


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  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Fri, 04/28/2017 11:52 am

    Very interesteing and timely article.  More media should be covering such stories, but our journalists are too busy trying to undermine our new president.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Mon, 05/01/2017 07:20 am

    e.g. "For by him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and INVISIBLE, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him." Col 1:16 "By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is INVISIBLE." Heb 11:27 

    Materialists will never understand prayer and faith when they only "see" the visible. The technology of man will never reach a point of controlling God's Spirit. 

  • JohnD
    Posted: Mon, 05/01/2017 02:09 pm