A 'Chinese New Year of persecution' for China's Christians

(Photo: Unsplash/Jeyakumaran Mayooresan)

Christians in China are celebrating Chinese New Year under tighter restrictions and mass digital surveillance.

As the country of 1.4bn people celebrates Chinese New Year on Friday, Release International is calling for religious freedom to be respected, and for an end to "Orwellian techniques" aimed at suppressing Christian worship. 

There are an estimated 100 million Christians in China, but many of them have to worship in secret or endure state interference and harassment. 

Churches have been ordered to tear down the crosses from their rooftops, while lawyers who try to defend them have been disbarred and in some cases abducted and held incognito before being forced to make confessions without any legal representation of their own.

Release said there were "persistent and credible" reports that China is torturing lawyers to extract these confessions.

The crackdown has also seen children banned from church services and pastors told to display the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flag in church. Some have also been told to pledge their loyalty in writing to the CCP and the ideology of President Xi Jinping.

The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu has been repeatedly targeted since 2018 after its pastor, Wang Yi, criticised the Chinese government's religious intoleranc.

He is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence. At least 200 elders, pastors and deacons at the church have been arrested in the last three years, with around 80 reporting physical and mental torture. 

"It has always been the mandate of the Church to speak truth to power," said Release CEO Paul Robinson.

"To fail to do so would be for the Church to fail in its God-given calling. When those in power try to silence the Church, they are also trying to silence the conscience of the nation." 

The non-profit also warns that Covid-19 has been used as a pretext to clamp down on churches, and increase the mass digital surveillance of Christians and Uyghur Muslims. 

According to one recent analysis, Chinese cities are under the heaviest surveillance in the world, with China being home to over half of the 770 million cameras in use worldwide. 

The surveillance includes the use of facial recognition to track citizens' movements.

ChinaFile, a China-focused publication, reports that the use of facial recognition systems by local authorities "is growing more prevalent across China, complementing their ever-increasing procurement of conventional video surveillance systems." 

Release warned that surveillance is being linked to China's social credit system so that authorities can punish so-called offenders by deducting their welfare or pension payments.

"The Chinese authorities have also been moving under cover of Covid to accelerate their crackdown against the Chinese Church," said Release CEO Paul Robinson. 

"Our partners say persecution is now as severe as at any time since Mao's Cultural Revolution. Given the ongoing repression in Hong Kong and of the Uyghur people, increased persecution for the Church over the Chinese New Year seems inevitable.

"Not only have we seen continued attempts to eradicate the house church movement, but we've seen China taking increasingly public steps towards shutting down and controlling its officially sanctioned churches, including demolition."

In democratic countries, worship and prayer moved online during the pandemic. But in China online Christian gatherings have been banned, with cyber security forces monitoring the web for illegal religious online activities. 

Release partner and pro-democracy campaigner Bob Fu said that "digital authoritarianism is a growing challenge" in China not only for Christians but for Uyghur Muslims.

"Many of the farmers in Xinjiang were forced to buy a smartphone pre-programmed by the Public Security Bureau with spy software," he said. 

"The Chinese Communist Party has hundreds of millions of face-recognition cameras all over China. They keep watch over every street corner, from the four walls of church buildings and even from pulpits."

Last year also saw China tighten its grip of Hong Kong with the introduction of the national security law that has led to the arrest and imprisonment of democracy campaigners.

Fu said the crackdown has been so severe in some areas of Hong Kong that "freedom of speech and freedom of association is actually worse than in mainland China."

"There is arbitrary detention, massive surveillance and a huge crackdown of legally elected legislators," he said. 

"One church has had its bank account frozen, just for considering helping victims of political persecution.

"What is happening in Hong Kong sends a chilling message all over the world.

"The world should take note: there is no rule of law anymore, no independence, no freedom of the press, no freedom of association, no freedom of speech anymore in Hong Kong. These are all gone."

Robinson added that people in China and Hong Kong are facing a "Chinese New Year of persecution".

"Across China we see essential freedoms being stripped away," he said.

"We continue to urge China to entrust its own citizens with that most basic freedom of all – freedom of worship."