Presented as a coronavirus prevention measure, numerous cameras were installed in China’s religious venues. Believers fear that they will remain for good.
by Ye Ling
As coronavirus restrictions started to be eased for businesses and public venues throughout China, places of worship remained under lockdown. On top of that, the Chinese authorities intensified their surveillance measures, threatening congregations to permanently close their churches, mosques, and temples if they attempt organizing gatherings.
Hurried installations in carefully selected locations
In April, high-end facial recognition cameras were installed in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei, a prefecture-level city in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
“These costly cameras are being installed amid the pandemic all over the region on orders from the Public Security Department,” a local source told Bitter Winter, adding that officials demanded that all installations were implemented as soon as possible.
In late March, the government of Jinxiang county, administered by Jining city in the eastern province of Shandong, ordered to install surveillance cameras at all Protestant and Catholic churches to prevent gatherings. The United Front Work Department (UFWD) of Chengwu county in Shandong’s Heze city also demanded to install surveillance cameras at Three-Self churches to monitor the situation in real-time.
Christians from Gansu, Henan, Jiangxi, and other provinces reported similar information. Directors in many venues were threatened with permanent closures if they were caught holding meetings during the coronavirus outbreak. Believers worry that the cameras, installed in the name of epidemic prevention, will remain in their places of worship and will further impede their religious liberties.
A deacon from a Three-Self church in the central province of Henan feels strongly about the invasion of surveillance cameras into churches. Last December, the local UFWD forcibly installed over 20 HD surveillance cameras with voice control and facial recognition features in his church, on top of the previously fitted 20 cameras. “We once received a call from government officials about the content of a preacher’s blessing that was captured by cameras,” he said. “They always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” The deacon hung a poster, “Mind your tongue as there are surveillance cameras in the church,” to remind congregation members to be cautious and evade government’s punishment.
“The government installs each camera after detailed investigations to determine the direction they should point and ensure that each church corner is covered,” the deacon added. “Plainly speaking, the government aims at controlling believers and restricting the development of Protestantism.”
Similar cameras were installed in December in six local churches, three mosques, and three Buddhist temples. In some of them, the total number of cameras increased to 16.
Believers’ homes also surveilled
In March and April, the government of a city in the west of the eastern province of Zhejiang fitted surveillance cameras at entrances to the houses of at least seven members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG). One of them was informed that this was being done on the pretext of “theft prevention.” When the family complained that the cameras were violating their privacy, a village official claimed that the local police indicated precise locations where the cameras had to be installed and what direction they should point.
Surveillance cameras were installed in April at the entrance to the house of a CAG member who had just been released from prison, where she served time for her faith. The workers fitting them told the believer that such cameras could display ID information of passers-by.
A public security officer from Zhejiang revealed to Bitter Winter that the police are tracing and surveilling CAG members and analyzing their movements to plan a unified arrest operation targeting the Church in the near future.
More than 70 percent of residents in a village of Baoding city’s Shunping county in the northern province of Hebei are Catholics. In December last year, the local government installed five HD surveillance cameras at the village’s major intersections and a 360-degree camera near the house of a Catholic priest.
“The camera is so near to his house that it can capture what is happening inside if curtains are open,” a local Catholic said, adding that because of the cameras, the priest cannot travel freely. Believers also don’t dare to visit him at home.