Apparently, there aren’t enough police to monitor religion at all times, everywhere. So, China uses old women, city employees, unemployed to spy on neighbors.
In Heilongjiang, the northernmost province in China, authorities have mobilized the masses to monitor religious individuals and report their findings to the government.
Qin Liang (a pseudonym) is a civil servant in Yichun city in Heilongjiang. He reports that the Yichun City National Security Brigade has been monitoring and controlling all religious individuals and human rights activists within its jurisdiction since October 2018. Brigade members then report their findings to local police stations, and the community police take over the long-term monitoring of these individuals.
The community police are that branch of the force that is tasked with monitoring specific local communities, rather than investigating conventional crimes. However, the community police don’t have the manpower to conduct close surveillance of every perceived threat.
As a result, authorities have increasingly turned to so-called “civil defense” organizations. Also referred to as civil defense networks, these bodies are composed of regular people who are enlisted to spy on their neighbors. Local civilians who are idle, unemployed, or retired are recruited to monitor “individuals under surveillance” and “suspicious individuals.”
Famously, these citizen spies are often called “small feet detective teams.” The name originated in the 1960s to refer to older women who were recruited for a similar watch-your-neighbor task. Since women in China traditionally had their feet bound at a young age to keep them from growing, the older women who were recruited had small feet. Since they are mobilized at the sub-district level, they are also sometimes called “sub-district aunts.”
Mr. Qin described how the “small feet” and the idle civilians were put to work. First, they had to go through a formal training to learn how to observe and track “suspicious” individuals. They were instructed to “always be wandering and patrolling within their territories and monitoring all religious individuals’ movements. They must take photos of believers if they regularly go to the same place, or find a congregation site. They should verify the individuals’ identities, scout out information about them and their beliefs. They must immediately report any human rights activist who leaves home to make a petition to the government.”
The effort to investigate and monitor all believers is playing out across the whole province. On November 21, a county in Qiqihar city held a meeting on how to implement religion crackdown policies mandated by senior provincial officials. As county leaders explained, “In order to cooperate with the work of the secret investigation groups, the province is demanding that every region crack down on religion with every available resource. We must conduct a new statistical investigation of our region to understand fully who the believers are and where they meet. The province will be conducting secret inquiries in villages at random intervals. As for religious individuals working outside of their hometown, [we will] assign personnel to track them, or pass the task of tracking to the local judicial units.”
These measures of surveillance and statistical documentation are called “Self-Examination, Self-Rectification, Investigation and Severe Crackdowns.”
One local government employee in charge of religious affairs revealed that plain-clothed police officers are installed in all of the Three-Self Church congregation sites in his jurisdiction under the guise that they believe in God. The content of preachers’ sermons and the topics of church members’ conversations are all recorded. If the officers discover any ideas or speech incompatible with state policies, authorities will send police to intervene directly and make arrests.
In another Heilongjiang town under the jurisdiction of Heihe city, officials launched an anti-religion campaign in November. The mayor mobilized nearly 100 civil servants from various departments in the town, who hung banners in the streets proclaiming a crackdown on religion and pasting posters on the walls of village committee offices and inside villagers’ homes.
The authorities are using posters and banners to incite villagers to report religious individuals who belong to religious groups such as Falun Gong, The Church of Almighty God, and the Shouters that are listed as xie jiao (heterodox teachings), and thus, are illegal in China.
Town leadership stated, “Each village will be auditing all religious individuals. If they discover any strangers or visiting missionaries, they should immediately report to the persons in charge. Religious households and congregation sites aren’t allowed to display any religious symbols or images.”
Not all public employees want to be brought into the anti-religious campaign, however. Some village officials expressed their disapproval. “The Party doesn’t care if these people have no food to eat, and they aren’t giving welfare to those who are supposed to get it,” one village official said resentfully. “They prioritize useless things, and if we don’t implement [these measures], we will be fined and disciplined.”
Reported by Zhou Hua