The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the ways that technology can lead either to greater accessibility or greater oppression. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now using the same technologies that have given many people around the world access to religious materials and church services during the pandemic to forcibly stop religious gatherings and restrict the distribution of religious materials within China.
Although the CCP is officially atheist, over 60% of the population adheres to a recognized religion; 30.8% practice Chinese folk religions, 16.6% Buddhism, 7.4% Christianity, 4.2% ethnic religion, and 1.8% Islam. Authentic numbers may be higher, given the risk of punishment for practicing certain religions in China.
The Chinese government has persecuted, tortured, and imprisoned Falun Gong members and Uyghur Muslims after these groups had mobilized protests. According to The Council on Foreign Relations report “Religion in China,” religious suppression has less to do with doctrine and more with a group’s organizational ability, which could threaten the CCP’s control over the people. That reasoning underlies the government’s continued persecution of Falun Gong, whose membership exceeds seven million.
However, doctrine does play some role in whether the CCP tolerates a religion. In a 2019 article in The Guardian, Duke University scholar and expert on Christianity in China Xi Lian explains, “What really makes the government nervous is Christianity’s claim to universal human rights and values:”
Increasingly, activist church leaders have taken inspiration from the democratising role the church played in eastern European countries in the Soviet bloc or South Korea under martial law, according to Lian. Several of China’s most active human rights lawyers are Christians.
“They have come to see the political potential of Christianity as a force for change,” said Lian. “What really makes the government nervous is Christianity’s claim to universal rights and values.”Lily Kuo, “In China, they’re closing churches, jailing pastors – and even rewriting scripture” at The Guardian
Notably, both Christianity and Chinese folk religions are the fastest growing religions in China.
Online Church Services Are Largely Shut Down
When the pandemic hit the U.S., many churches moved their services to an online platform. While online church services have their critics, they have functioned as a helpful stopgap until more information becomes available about the coronavirus and best prevention tactics. A key goal has been to prevent overwhelming the medical infrastructure.
No such option was available in China. The Chinese government not only enforced strict lockdown so that people could not leave their homes, it also shut down websites streaming religious services. The CCP controls the internet within its borders through its “Great Firewall.” Religious resources, WeChat and Weibo posts, live streams, and recorded videos were taken down if they contained religious content that has not been vetted by the authorities. Such materials have been routinely censored for the last four years but the pandemic offered the final blow to accessing religious materials online.
Bitter Winter, an online magazine which documents religious persecution in China, reports that a preacher for the Three-Self Church (a state-approved Protestant denomination) said that he had been providing online sermons for years until the government imposed more restrictions on religious practices in 2016. By 2019 his online accounts, including chatrooms, were blocked.
In the past China permitted the private practice of religion but things changed in 2018 when the Measures for the Management of Religious Information on the Internet legislation came into effect. One of its articles reads,
No organizations or individuals will be allowed to live-stream or broadcast religious activities, including praying, burning incense, ordinations, scripture chanting, holding Mass, worshipping or receiving baptism online in the form of text, photo, audio or video.Deng Jie, “No Online Religious Activities Allowed Amid Coronavirus Outbreak” at Bitter Winter (October 17, 2020)
The final set of restrictions, decided in December, 2019 and put into effect in February 2020, kept supposedly “allowed” religious groups from free practice by placing all religious activity under the auspices of the Chinese government. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the 2020 regulations require religious groups to “spread CCP ideology and values.”
Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23, with other centers soon to follow. Residents were prohibited from meeting in person and, as per earlier rules, online sermons were also prohibited:
Our first and only online gathering was blocked by the government soon after it started,” the preacher explained. She added that before the coronavirus outbreak, their church had to change venues for at least five times because of the continuous police harassment.Wan ZiXin, “Religious Activities Online Banned or Censored During Pandemic” at Bitter Winter
Other churches tried to have online meetings, only to have them blocked twenty minutes into the stream.
Online Religious Activities Are Monitored
In a previous article, I talked about the restrictions journalists and other Chinese citizens in Wuhan faced when discussing the on-the-ground situation during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. Religious groups in Wuhan came under the same scrutiny as citizen journalists for mentioning anything about the epidemic online. Authorities used the pandemic as an opportunity to purge online venues of religious content.
On January 24, the next day after the lockdown in Wuhan was imposed, members of a Three-Self church in Shangqiu city’s Suiyang district in the central province of Henan received a notice from their pastor, demanding to dissolve all their WeChat groups. In February, a village official forced a religious resident to change his WeChat account profile picture, which contained an image of the cross.Wan ZiXin], “Religious Activities Online Banned or Censored During Pandemic” at Bitter Winter
In China online purchases are monitored, and Chinese citizens can be flagged by authorities for purchasing religious materials online. While the law has been in place since March 30, 2018, the pandemic provided an opportunity for stricter enforcement, including monitoring WeChat discussions that might reveal that someone purchased an item from overseas.
Authorities can also retroactively sanction a resident for purchasing religious materials online. A Christian bookseller in China was detained for selling copies of religious materials from the U.S. and Taiwan. Afterwards, the government looked up all the customers who had bought the materials before the laws went into effect. One house church member investigated by police for buying religious materials from the book store told Bitter Winter that, as a result, she has “left all church-related groups on WeChat after the police examined all my online activities.”
Professor Xu Zhangrun, in an eloquent critique of the Chinese government, written from Wuhan during the outbreak, calls this “WeChat terrorism”:
Unlimited government budgets have funded technological developments that are turning China into a mega data totalitarian state; we are already subjected to a 1984 style of total surveillance and control. This state of affairs has enabled what could be called “WeChat terrorism” which directly targets the country’s vast online population… As a result, people live in a state of constant anxietyXu Zhangrun, Geremie R. Barmé (tr,anno), “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear” at ChinaFile (February 10, 2020)
Churches reopen—with smart locks and government surveillance cameras
While many places of worship in the U.S. and around the globe are working on re-opening their doors, religious venues in China have largely remained closed. Governing authorities must conduct a “health” inspection before they can re-open; many fail their inspection for unknown or irrelevant reasons. Or they may be forbidden because they openly display religion: Some venues were only allowed to re-open if they removed crosses or signs that have the Chinese character for “God” on them. Others had to remove general religious symbols. According to one deacon, his church was not allowed to re-open because the sermons that had to be submitted ahead of time mentioned the Bible and did not pay homage to the Chinese government for its efforts during the pandemic.
While churches, mosques, and temples were shut down during the pandemic, authorities installed surveillance cameras to ensure that congregants were not meeting secretly. Several churches report that they already had surveillance cameras, but during the pandemic several more were installed to cover all areas of the building.
Additionally, cameras were installed in or near believers’ houses to ensure that they are not having religious gatherings. In one village where more than 70% of the population is Catholic, the authorities installed five surveillance cameras at the village’s major intersection. They also installed a 360-degree camera near the house of a local Catholic priest. According to Bitter Winter, people they interviewed said the cameras could surveil the interior of a house. Because of these measures, the priest is restricted in where he can go and people are afraid to visit him.
During the pandemic, authorities also installed “smart locks” on the doors of rental properties. These locks use facial recognition or cell phones to unlock doors. They ostensibly track whether the occupant has traveled outside of the province and needs to quarantine. However, the technology can be used to identify a religious meeting. For example, several believers of The Church of the Almighty God, a Christian-like sect that believes Jesus has returned as a Chinese woman, have had their homes monitored to ensure they are not secretly meeting. Others have been told to quarantine even though they had not traveled outside the province.
Despite all this, religious belief is growing
Influenced by Marx’s tenet that Communism begins with atheism, Mao Zedong sought to rid China of “old” things during the Cultural Revolution. Despite the Communist Party of China’s persistent oppression of religious groups, the number of people who identify with a religion continues to grow in China. Human nature yearns for something more than an atheistic nationalism can provide because materialist philosophy leaves “a spiritual vacuum” that seeks to be filled.
Here are some of Heather Zeiger’s other recent columns on the techno crackdown in China:
China: COVID-19’s True History Finds an Unlikely Home—GitHub
High-Tech suppression of China’s Mongol Region Provokes Protests
“China’s Health Code App: One More Way to Track Citizens