China turns surveillance state on religious gatherings

CCTV surveillance cameras in Tiananmen Square. Credit: Louis Constant/Shutterstock

China is using advanced technology to monitor both public and private religious gatherings, witnesses told a federal hearing on Wednesday.

“As low-cost processors, sensors, and cameras have proliferated, the extent of religious life that the CCP can surveil has expanded dramatically,” said Chris Meserole, deputy director of the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution, on Wednesday at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The virtual hearing of USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission that advises the U.S. government on matters of international religious freedom, focused on “technological surveillance of religion in China.”

China currently faces increased international scrutiny for its treatment of its largely-Muslim Uyghur population in the country’s far northwest province of Xinjiang.

Anywhere from 900,000 to 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities are or have been detained in more than 1,300 camps, according to multiple reports. Survivors of the camps and their families have reported suffering torture, indoctrination, sterilization, and forced labour, along with other abuses.

Regional authorities have also forced many Uyghur women to undergo abortions, implantations of IUDs and other contraceptive methods, and sterilizations in what one expert called “a slow, painful, creeping genocide.”

Meanwhile, the Uyghur population outside of the camps has been subject to a system of mass surveillance and predictive policing, with Muslim religious practices being regulated or prohibited such as fasting during Ramadan.

Human rights advocates have also called the overall abuses of Uyghurs “crimes against humanity.”

Earlier in July, the U.S. sanctioned several Chinese officials responsible for the serious human rights abuses in the region.

On Thursday, USCIRF commissioners and guest witnesses at the hearing described the Chinese Communist Party’s intricate use of digital technology to monitor religious practice.

In Xinjiang the CCP is using smartphone and vehicle location data, checkpoint logs, facial recognition technology, and video feeds from buses and drones to identify Muslims who are “collocated” at the same covert religious meeting, Meserole said.

Chinese companies have developed software to recognize religious symbols and alert authorities to the presence of a Uyghur Muslim or a Tibetan Buddhist. This is occurring in coastal China and not just inland, he said.

The state is monitoring writing and speech on smartphones through software that tracks all audio, video, and text stored on phones. People have been detained for texting verses from the Koran, he said.

The CCP also used the COVID-19 pandemic to promote surveillance as a public health solution.

Officials have referred to religious dissidents as having a “political virus,” said witness Sheena Greitens, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

“That analogy has significant political implications,” she said, as it reveals that the CCP is “targeting and treating citizens before they show symptoms of problematic behaviour.

“And that’s the logic that underpins the forced re-education of massive numbers of innocent citizens in Xinjiang and elsewhere,” she said.

Vice-chair Tony Perkins said that U.S. companies Intel and Nvidia have produced the “advanced processors and censors” that are being used in Chinese surveillance.

“According to credible reports, both companies have sold critical components to Hikvision, which has lucrative contracts establishing surveillance cameras for the concentration camps in Xinjiang,” Perkins said.

“We also have a reason to ensure that the fruits of American innovation are not distorted into a dystopia,” he stated on Wednesday.

Cordell Hull, the acting undersecretary of industry and security at the Commerce Department, testified that “within my own personal experience” he did not know of a U.S. company that knowingly supplied China’s surveillance efforts.

Commissioner Gary Bauer, however, said that he was “concerned that some U.S. companies are following an approach of ‘ignorance is bliss’,” given the “repeated reports” that U.S. companies source products made at Chinese slave labour factories.

Source: CNA