As China prepares to celebrate its New Year on January 22, there are fears the authorities may use the cover of Covid, along with rapid advances in surveillance technology, to further crackdown on Christians.
Release International, which serves the persecuted church around the world, has named China as a country of particular concern for 2023.
Bob Fu, a partner of Release International, warns ‘The Chinese government has steadily increased the oppression and control of Christians, particularly through the use of technology.
‘Techno-authoritarianism in China has begun to reach new extremes under Xi Jinping in his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist party.’
Bob Fu issued his warning to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in December. The USCIRF reports: ‘Religious freedom conditions in China continue to deteriorate. The communist Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, utilising facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor and harass Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and other religions.’
China has been accused of carrying out a genocide against its Muslim Uyghur people, rounding them up into more than a thousand concentration camps. China has long been using Draconian methods to crackdown on its Christian minority.
Release International’s partner claims China is using the spread of Covid to prevent Christians meeting in churches and has banned the provision of online services and any mention of Christianity on the Internet without prior permission.
Chinese censorship reached new extremes in April 2021, after a book recommendation on WeChat was banned due to the use of the word Christ.
Says Bob Fu: ‘The word Christ is in violation of the new law in categories including pornography, gambling, drug abuse, excessive marketing, and incitement.’
One pastor who was arrested for holding a baptism service, was confronted with video ‘evidence’ freshly downloaded from WeChat.
Pastor Mao Zhibin said: ‘I majored in information management at university. With the data collected from WeChat and hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras which are processed with artificial intelligence algorithms, the power is way beyond any other totalitarian regime.’
Bob Fu told Release International: ‘The Chinese Communist Party has a powerful civilian surveillance system with hundreds of millions of face-recognition cameras. They are all over China, including all the four walls of the church building and pulpits and every corner of the street.
‘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.’
He warns that technology can be used to ‘virtually keep track of all citizens’ movements’ – even beyond China’s borders.
Says Bob Fu: ‘AI is being weaponised in the growing transnational repression of Chinese Christians around the world. This is China reaching across borders to silence dissidents through illegal deportations, abductions, digital threats, and family intimidation.’
Fu was on the receiving end of harassment himself, when organised protestors picketed his home in Midland, Texas and threatened him. Bob Fu, a former pro-democracy campaigner, believes the protests were organised by the Chinese Communist Party to try to intimidate him.
As Covid continues to spread in China, Release International fears the authorities will step up their efforts to extinguish the church by preventing Christians from meeting and censoring any mention of Christianity or Christ online.
Release International has just launched its annual Persecution Trends report, which names China as among nations where the persecution of Christians is set to increase this year.
RI partners believe Christians will come under even greater pressure to demonstrate unswerving allegiance to Premier Xi Jinping by rejecting the Christian faith.
Says Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International: ‘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.’
In recent years, China has been tightening its grip on evangelicals. They face violence, along with charges of being corrupt, belonging to cults, or engaged in illegal religious activity. The authorities have targeted leaders and members of unregistered churches for harassment and questioning.
Release International is active in some 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families; Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.