Vast “Skynet” surveillance system exacerbates crackdown on religious freedom in China

4 May 2020

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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denounced the Chinese government’s state-wide use of high-tech surveillance to target minorities, which is “amplifying the repression” of religious communities, in an update released with its annual report on 28 April.

China's massive surveillance network draws on DNA, and other biometric data, to monitor ethnic and religious groups targeted for suppression

The commission’s special report, which redesignated China as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), highlighted the progression of the “Skynet” surveillance network across in China over the past decade along with a troubling increase in religious freedom violations.

Commissioner Jonnie Moore stated, “There is no question that China is the world’s foremost violator of human rights and religious freedom. It cannot be compared to any other country in the world not only because of its inexcusable actions, but because of the way it aids and abets similar actions by other countries … those nations around the world who ignore China’s malevolence may eventually find themselves subservient to it.”

The surveillance system harvests “unprecedented amounts of data” on populations targeted for government suppression. Installation of cameras to monitor in the interior of church buildings has also been enforced, with cameras even placed in the pulpit of some churches

The advanced facial recognition system deployed on the network is believed to be capable of distinguishing between the faces of different ethnic groups to single out Uighurs, Tibetans and other minorities. Data from DNA samples taken from Chinese citizens in mandatory medical examinations is also used for racial profiling. Authorities have also collected fingerprints, voiceprints and other biometric data from religious communities without their consent.

The ongoing crackdown on Christianity, which began in 2019, saw the closure of hundreds of unofficial “house churches”, as well as the arrest and detention of thousands of Christians and church leaders who refuse to join the state-sanctioned church. High-value cash rewards for individuals who inform on “house church” activities were introduced in 2019, with the highest reward given for informing on foreign pastors. Crosses continued to be removed from officially recognised “three-self” churches and “house churches” alike, often under sincisation (making Chinese) rules introduced since 2018. The regulations require that religious symbols, images and Biblical verses on display be replaced with the Chinese flag, portraits of president Xi Jinping and Chinese Communist Party slogans.

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