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Chinese govt puts surveillance cameras & propaganda in churches

When your country’s dream fails, you can get a surveillance state to maintain order.

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Sunday morning in Beijing. Sketch: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


In the control room, Wen Zhouwang of the Wenzhou Police stares carefully at the video of someone who looks like a government leader entering a large church. He flicks his wrist and pushes a button to freeze a photo of the man's face and quickly runs a face recognition program. If a Communist Party member is entering a church, he must write up a contact sheet for the Party Control Commission to warn the cadre or even open an investigation. President Xi Jinping has emphasized that Communist Party members must be atheists.

This is a scenario that is happening in China right now. Last year, China's State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) ordered that surveillance cameras be installed in major churches, mosques, and temples. This spring and summer, the government started installing cameras near and inside large church compounds. Li has launched an atheist assault on the Christian churches because he is afraid of their appeal. Communism is dead, and the "Chinese Dream" of success lacks moral and spiritual power. It is a national vision modeled after the one in the United States where the American Dream today often seems tattered and empty,

Pastors at the larger churches say that they have many prominent Communist Party and business leaders worshiping on Sunday mornings that will stop coming if their faces are being scanned.

The Chinese government is throwing up cameras as fast as they can. According to the business intelligence firm IHS Markit, China already has 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private hands, and is forecast to add another 450 million by 2020. If those figures are to be believed, that would mean around 600 million CCTV cameras by that date -- around one for every three people in China.

Facial recognition software programs are spreading so quickly in China that they are beginning to be taken for granted. At one Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, customers’ faces are scanned in order to recommend menu items based on factors including age, gender and mood. The fast-food restaurant teamed up with Baidu, sometimes called China's "Google," which is making a big push to sell its face-recognition software. A press release from Baidu says that “a male customer in his early 20s” would be offered “a set meal of crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and coke”, while “a female customer in her 50s” would get a recommendation of “porridge and soybean milk for breakfast.” If the government taps into these business networks, it could monitor the daily lives of religious "troublemakers."

In the past, religious dissidents could escape surveillance by walking through restaurants to exit at the back door. Now, the police can just watch from the comfort of their desks. And the popular idea of holding Bible studies at fast-food restaurants may very well have a silent partner on the walls.  An all-encompassing effort of government surveillance and face-recognition is throwing up a huge challenge to Christians who have taken lead roles in the protection of human rights, exposure of corruption, and the development of democratic voices.

In an OpEd for the New York Times, Democracy activist Derek Lam writes,"I won’t make Jesus bow down to Xi Jinping."

"Every summer," Lam wrote, "Hong Kong’s Christians organize youth camps in which thousands of teenagers gather to have fun, dance to Christian rock and learn about Christian values. During the last evening of one of this summer’s camps, the leaders of the camp told the campers that “God would make China prosperous” and that Xi Jinping’s pet infrastructure project known as “One Belt, One Road” was “the path that God had prepared.” The organizers of the camp then had the audacity to claim that “One Belt, One Road” would help spread the gospel.

This perverse co-opting of Christianity is consistent with what I have witnessed myself. Beginning in 2014, the government of Zhejiang Province began a policy of removing crucifixes from the top of churches. The policy soon evolved to razing churches to the ground. In rural Henan Province last year a pastor and his wife tried to stop the destruction of their church and were buried alive. Although there is nothing I would love more than to become a pastor and preach the gospel in Hong Kong, I will never do so if it means making Jesus subservient to Xi Jinping."

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