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Last year, a reporter for the website Bitter Winter captured never-before-seen video footage of the inside of a reeducation camp in Xinjiang, China. The video showed bars and wire netting fitted over the dormitory windows, rooms with double iron doors and a keypad lock, surveillance cameras throughout the campus, and outdoor areas surrounded by chain-link fences. On the exterior of the building were words of appreciation for China’s Communist leader: “Heartfelt thanks for the cordial care of the Party Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core.”
The reporter visited the camp, then under construction in Yining city, in August 2018. By the time Bitter Winter published the video that November, authorities had already arrested the reporter, according to website editors. (Today the reporter remains missing.)
Since Bitter Winter launched in May 2018, the website has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Published by the Center for Studies on New Religions in Italy, Bitter Winter uses leaked government files and on-the-ground informants to document the Chinese government’s persecution of religious groups. Its articles are available in five languages, including Chinese, making the site dangerous in the eyes of the Chinese government. Chinese citizens can read the reports if they use a virtual private network to circumvent the government’s internet censors. The Chinese government has called Bitter Winter an “overseas hostile website” and instructed its intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, to investigate the group.
Italian sociologist of religion Massimo Introvigne and other scholars decided to start the website after realizing there was no way to study religion in China without addressing China’s lack of religious freedom. They began to work with human rights activists, journalists, and religious groups to disseminate information about what was happening on the ground.
As the Chinese government makes it increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to report on the country, Bitter Winter taps into Chinese correspondents inside the country willing to pass along information, photos, videos, and government documents. Each week, said director-in-charge Marco Respinti, Bitter Winter receives five or six emails from people inside China who want to submit information to the site. To authenticate the reports and the trustworthiness of the informants, Bitter Winter uses connections in China’s religious diaspora community, as well as experts. When Respinti hears a report that local authorities have torn down a temple, for example, he’ll fact-check the claim by asking other correspondents in the area—often of a different religious group—to verify.
“We have people on the ground all over China who feel the necessity [to report] because they are persecuted and they want the world to know,” said Respinti. “All the things we do are only possible because of the people in China who are suffering and risking their lives every single day.”
Between August and December 2018, authorities arrested 45 of Bitter Winter’s journalists. Today, 20 apparently remain in custody, mostly in Xinjiang. Officials in Shanxi held one Bitter Winter reporter in prison for six months on “suspicion of illegally providing state secrets overseas” before freeing him on bail. The reporter is unable to leave the city and is required to check in with the police whenever the authorities wish.
Recently, Bitter Winter broke a story about the Chinese government tightening control over how the state-approved Three-Self churches spend their money. One Henan province church leader told the website that tithes can’t be used to assist believers, but only to “buy propaganda materials promoting CCP’s ideology.” In Jiangxi province, a reporter found local officials forcing Christians to remove crosses and religious decorations from their homes and replace them with portraits of President Xi Jinping.
An article about a government crackdown on religious statues contained photos showing how officials had modified statues to obscure their religious context. For instance, a statue of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra in Liaoning province was replaced with an image of ears of corn and stalks of wheat symbolizing a bountiful harvest. Other Buddhist statues are completely covered or torn down.
Bitter Winter also reports on the persecution of the Church of Almighty God, a religious cult that China has officially banned. In Shandong, authorities arrested more than 1,000 of the group’s members this year.
Bitter Winter spends most of its expenses on protecting its website, servers, and communication channels from Chinese hackers. Hackers have attacked the website’s servers two or three times, and the arrest of the 45 journalists revealed that the government had hacked into emails as well. Since then, Bitter Winter has improved its security system, using more secure encrypted emails and asking informants to pass along videos and documents in small segments sent to different locations.
“So far, the CCP has attacked us many times in many ways,” Respinti said. “They say we are lying on an ideological basis—they say we are defending religion and religion is a bad thing—but it’s an ideological attack. They can’t demonstrate that a single piece of information, video, picture, name or document we published is false because it’s not.”