Believers in government-controlled churches have their personal and religious freedoms violated, as authorities watch their every move.
In February, the chairman of the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Huaiyin district of Huai’an city in the eastern province of Jiangsu mentioned in a report that in 2018, 155 of the 170 government-approved Protestant churches in the district had surveillance cameras installed; 120 of them are connected to the regular government video surveillance network, while the rest – to that of public security institutions.
In one of the Three-Self churches in Huaiyin district, visited by Bitter Winter, 28 high-definition surveillance cameras have been installed in total; four at the entrance and six above the podium. The large camera in the middle of the hall is remotely controlled and provides primary surveillance coverage.
The church’s director feels helpless to do anything. “The Religious Affairs Bureau pressured us into installing them,” he explained. “Each surveillance camera is connected to the public security organs, as required by the Religious Affairs Bureau. They can see every move in the church. If we didn’t follow their demands, the church would have to be shut down.”
Dozens of surveillance cameras with video- and audio-recording functions have also been installed in Dingji Town Three-Self Church, located in the same district. Surveillance cameras can be seen in front of and behind the courtyard, the prayer room, and the lobby.
Believers have voiced their strong discontent about such networked surveillance. “Every time we hold a gathering, the local United Front Work Department, the Public Security Bureau, and the town government send specially-assigned personnel to come and supervise the church,” the church director explained. “These people take turns on duty, sitting in front of the computer and observing each move of every person in the church. Now, when believers come to attend gatherings, they don’t dare to speak casually.”
“House church gatherings are being persecuted. I never thought that there would be no freedom at Three-Self churches either,” said a Christian who transferred from a house church and now attends gatherings at a Three-Self church.
A church custodian in Dingji thinks that for the Religious Affairs Bureau, cameras are the essential source of information on the daily activities in churches. “They can ascertain the situation and control believers’ speech and what they do. This not only violates their right to privacy but also constitutes the illegal act of intervening in church affairs.”
As early as 2015, China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs formulated a Notice on Doing a Good Job in Public Safety Video Surveillance Construction Networking Application Work in the Religious Field, which was issued to Religious Affairs Bureaus in each province and city, demanding a 100 percent surveillance coverage of the public areas of religious venues.
As the CCP intensifies its suppression of religion, the scope of surveillance cameras has long exceeded public areas, and now covers every corner of religious venues, including donation boxes and even washrooms.