The Pandemic Has Totalitarian Powers Thriving
In the wake of the pandemic, China’s oppression of its people is intensified: to warn one’s family on facebook about the magnitude of the spread of the virus may accrue a citizen high fines or cost them their freedom. By choosing which utterances should be classified as “the spreading of dangerous rumours,” the regime has a tight grip on already vulnerable social groups. Among these groups there is a noticeable overrepresentation of religious and ethnic minorities. Ye Ling, the pseudonym of a reporter writing for Bitter Winter, a daily internet magazine about religious freedom and human rights in China, reports on how this more extensive censorship continues to stifle the freedom of expression in China.
“Never make one more remark online from now on,” a villager in the eastern province of Shandong advised his relatives and friends recently when meeting them.
In February, he was punished by the police on the charge of “creating a rumor” for sending information to warn his friends about the severity of the epidemic, which read, “Several people die every day in some places.” Finally, he was spared from detention, as “there are too many people to be detained in the detention center” during the epidemic period, but he had to spend over 10,000 RMB (about $ 1,400) to settle the matter by using his connections and paying the fine.
A doctor from the southeastern province of Fujian had his WeChat account banned permanently for reposting the information about the need for medical supplies sent by one of his friends, a doctor from the central province of Hubei. He was burning with anxiety for losing contacts with his relatives and friends in Hubei Province. From then on, he did not dare to post any more “sensitive information” on communication platforms such as inquiring about how many people died from infection; instead, he could only make remarks like the question of whether a friend was safe.
During the epidemic, all nongovernment-published information is deemed as “rumor” or “endangering social safety,” which leads to severe punishment. This infinite expansion of the government power has badly frightened the citizens. Netizens began to censor their remarks of their own accord putting them in accordance with the official propaganda. They did not even dare to post information about what they personally witnessed.
The critical information published by Dr Li Wenliang and proved to be related to international safety was labelled as a “rumor.” Recently, the Chinese ambassador to the UK claimed that there was nothing wrong with this, because government-unapproved information would cause panic.
To avoid punishment, people even have begun to spontaneously censor remarks by those surrounding them, if they think the remarks are not approved by the government.
In early February, a preacher from the government-approved Three Self Protestant Church from Shandong’s Liaocheng city called in a WeChat group for the members to pray for the government, asking those in power to repent for the sake of the epidemic. The group members immediately warned him, saying that posting such comments would lead to the bans of all the accounts of the group members, and he may even be arrested.
The changes in the citizens ’attitude caused by the government’s violence is continuous. The government seems to have no intention to clarify or regulate the prohibitions, and instead it is glad to see a general self-censorship happen. At present, the police’s official website is still updating the notices about the punishment of “those who posted rumors.”
The CCP has blocked nearly all the information communication channels outside its official media outlets on the pretext of epidemic prevention and social stability maintenance, arresting citizen journalists, and putting dissidents under house arrests.
Surveillance scope enlarged in the name of epidemic prevention
The CCP highly praised the key role played by 4.5 million grid administrators during the epidemic. This grassroot stability maintenance system, described as a “capillary network,” divides residential communities into small units, which are managed by specially designated personnel.
Many CCP internal documents and reports have proved that this is actually an immense grassroot stability maintenance system created by the CCP to surveil and control people’s activities and even thoughts, supplement technical surveillance, and nip in the bud all those that the CCP regards as “hidden dangers.” The CCP has stepped up the development of this system through the epidemic prevention. This means stricter control and closer surveillance for dissidents, religious believers, and ethnic minorities suppressed by the government.
In February, for example, two members of the large Christian new religious movement known as The Church of Almighty God (CAG) from the northern province of Hebei were arrested after government officials entered their house for investigation under the pretext of controls connected with the epidemic, and they were tortured with electrical shocks during interrogation.
For religious believers who live on the run trying to evade arrests, the situation is particularly dire. During the epidemic, frequent investigations expose them to the danger of being arrested at any time. Some of them were shut in their houses for 17 days while hiding themselves, and nearly starved to death; some were injured while escaping; some were arrested during investigations and subjected to torture. They have nowhere to hide under ubiquitous surveillance and investigations.
On top of “personnel safety prevention,” the CCP technical surveillance has rapidly developed during the epidemic. Hanwang Technology Co., Ltd. developed the “facial recognition technology for people wearing masks” within one month. According to Huang Lei, the company’s vice president, the largest customer of this Hanwang technology is the Ministry of Public Security of China.
Many local governments forced citizens to install public health apps and the like on the grounds of epidemic prevention. The New York Times’ analysis found that as soon as a user grants the software access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled “Report Info and Location to Police” sends the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a police-connected server.
Many people question whether the government ascertains citizens’ movements in the name of epidemic prevention with the ultimate aim of permanently surveilling them. In February, a CAG member had to show her ID card for the mandatory application of the travel pass and health code implemented in her community. Since she had a police record because of her belief, she was later surveilled by the police, who found out her residence and stalked outside for two days. Fortunately, she narrowly escaped arrest because she was told in advance that the police were questioning neighbors about her.
Intense discussion is still ongoing about how to balance surveillance measures and privacy rights in various countries during the pandemic. “Nothing is wrong with the technology, nor is anything wrong with the epidemic prevention. The point is who uses the technology. When an autocratic regime uses it, it is a dangerous weapon,” the believer said.
Stability maintenance escalated in name of state safety
The CCP is uneasy with the social crisis and the international relationship crisis caused by the pandemic. It has strengthened stability maintenance, exaggerated all conflicts, and exerted suppression on the pretext of state safety.
According to a document issued in March by the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of a locality in northeastern China, the CCP established a stability maintenance mechanism targeting religious groups at home and aboard, pro-democracy activists, government petitioners and other organized groups that could threaten its regime and “create potential danger to the social stability” during the coronavirus epidemic.
Citizen journalists were “disappeared”, dissidents were isolated, university instructors were investigated and punished for supporting Fang Fang’s mild criticism of the government. Pro-democracy activist Teng Biao pointed out that since the epidemic outbreak, many cases have showed that the CCP has been escalating its suppression of human rights activists and dissidents. We are afraid that the situation will be even more dire for dissidents in China after the pandemic is over.
This is particularly true for religious groups. The CCP has always regarded them as threats to its regime. At internal conferences on stability maintenance, the CCP often “learns from history,” stating that the influence of religious groups was amid foreign invasions or multiple anti-government uprisings resulting in the changes of regime. So, for the CCP, the more the time presents a social crisis, the more efforts are needed to exert suppression on religious groups. Under the international relationship crisis brought by the pandemic, the CCP has accelerated its crackdown on Protestantism, independent Catholicism, and other religions originated from the West.
In March, Zhao Huaiguo, pastor of a house church in Cili county in the central province of Hunan, was detained by the CCP authorities on the suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for reposting oversea reports and videos about the coronavirus pandemic.
Since late January, the CCP has strictly implemented the “two suspensions and one delay” policy (suspensions of reopening religious activity venues and of all religious collective activities; delay of a semester for restarting religious schools) nationwide on the grounds of epidemic prevention. Though the government rigorously encouraged return to work across the country, religious venues are not only banned to resume gatherings, but many of them have been forcibly demolished and shut down by the government on the pretexts of epidemic prevention.
Meanwhile, the CCP has strengthened its control over the ideology of state-run religious groups, demanding them to display their loyalty to the party-state in various ways.
On March 10, a Christian church in Xiazhuang village in Dawu township, administered by the prefecture-level city of Shangqiu in the central province of Henan, was forcibly demolished. On April 12, the Easter Day, the Donghu Church, a Three-Self church in Xining, the capital of the western province of Qinghai, was demolished. While government officials forcibly demolished a house church venue, they shouted slogans that “the coronavirus was introduced from overseas, and the United States is China’s enemy.” Despite the severe epidemic, crosses were continuously removed from religious venues in Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong, and other provinces.
According to a report by Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China, in February, at the height of the epidemic, the Religious Affairs Bureau of the northeastern province of Jilin issued a document, demanding religious departments across the province to investigate house churches, paving way for a further unified crackdown campaign.
For those Christian groups that grow rapidly and refuse to be controlled by its regime, the CCP has launched severe crackdown specially targeting them. During the epidemic, the CCP issued several documents in a row, demanding crackdowns on the CAG and investigations of CAG members on the pretext of epidemic inspection. Other groups were targeted as well.
In February and March, by entering residents’ homes on the grounds of epidemic inspection, the CCP investigated and arrested at least 325 CAG members, and visited and harassed at least 900 CAG members.
Now the pandemic is yet to be over, but the CCP has launched its policy of crackdown on religion for the remaining part of 2020. According to a government official from the northeastern province of Liaoning, in March, the Party Committee of Liaoning Province held a conference, stressing that religious stability maintenance is one of the key tasks in 2020, and it should be carried out from the viewpoint of political safety.
Ye Ling is the pen name of one of the reporters sending materials from China to Bitter Winter, a daily magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China published in English, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Korean. 45 Chinese reporters have been arrested for contributing to Bitter Winter.