Each word and movement by believers now tracked, as churches and temples are included in the nationwide massive surveillance project for rural areas.
by Tang Zhe
The “Sharp Eyes Project” – the surveillance program intended to cover all rural areas – has been gradually implemented in towns and villages since 2016, with the planned goal of achieving the blind-spot-free monitoring by 2020, “covering all regions, sharing across all networks, available at all times, and controlled at all points.”
This intrusive surveillance system has also penetrated places of worship and has become an indispensable means for the government to control and suppress religious belief. The number of fully-monitored churches and temples has been growing exponentially. In Huaiyin district of Huai’an city in the eastern province of Jiangsu, for example, 155 of the 170 government-approved Protestant churches had surveillance equipment installed in February; some were connected to the public security system network. The footage from religious venues often serves as a pretext to close them down permanently or used to harass believers. In some cases, cameras have been placed inside churches’ washrooms, in stark violation of believer’s privacy.
A comprehensive plan to monitor religious venues
According to a document issued last year by the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of a locality in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, the authorities ordered to ensure that “Sharp Eyes Projects” also covered Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian religious venues in the area. “In principle, surveillance cameras must be installed in every religious activity venue, inside and outside, to ensure the venue’s safety,” the document states.
Presented as a project for public security, the cameras in religious venues under the “Sharp Eyes Project” are actually being installed for more scrutiny and surveillance of believers, making sure that the Big Brother monitors them at all times.
The document also sets out explicit requirements for the location of surveillance cameras at religious venues so that comprehensive monitoring and coverage is achieved. In Buddhist and Taoist temples, they should be installed in the main halls and courtyards. As for Protestant and Catholic venues – at the podium and outside buildings.
Believers become anxious under tight surveillance
In the past, only China’s public security institutions had access to surveillance footage. Now, even low-level local authorities – such as grassroots-level grid administrators and village Party secretaries – can view every surveillance image taken through the “Sharp Eyes Project” application in the area of their jurisdiction. Undoubtedly, such high-density surveillance in places of worship has instilled fear for people of faith.
On April 28, inside a Three-Self church in Jiangxi’s Gao’an city, a believer was reading the Bible to the congregation when a woman holding a toddler entered the church. The reader’s facial expression suddenly became tense, and he said in flustered tone: “We’re finished! Take the child out immediately. There are surveillance cameras installed here; the church could be shut down.”
Other believers joined in, pleading the woman to leave, since, as per the new Regulations on Religious Affairs, children are not allowed to enter places of worship, and those violating the requirement are punished. The woman with the baby hurriedly rushed out of the church.
Police officers who installed the camera at the church’s entrance a week ago reiterated the prohibition. “Minors absolutely aren’t allowed to enter the church,” the police warned, threatening to seal off the church at once if the camera captures anyone with children entering the premises.
One of the congregants said that there is always a feeling of unease at their gatherings ever since the surveillance cameras have been installed. Believers feel as if someone is watching them closely at all times. They don’t even dare to breathe freely, fearing to be accused of baseless charges if they are careless even for a moment.
Religious Party members fear to go to church
An elderly believer in Yichun city is a CCP member, even though Party members are prohibited from holding religious beliefs. Ever since surveillance cameras have been installed at his church, he no longer dares to attend gatherings, knowing that the local Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau is closely monitoring him. All he can do is secretly read the Bible and practice his faith at home.
“Although we’ve been persecuted in previous years, the surveillance has become so severe since the installment of cameras at the church. I will be recognized as soon as I enter the church. I’ll be called out by name, dragged before a public meeting to be denounced and humiliated, and expelled from the Party,” the elderly believer said.
Congregation members at another Three-Self church in Yichun have been repeatedly cautioned by the clergy to be careful what they say or do during services after surveillance cameras were installed in April. “Now that the government has installed surveillance cameras and is tightly controlling religious belief, the environment has become extremely harsh,” believers were warned.