One of the big issues facing the church and work in China is its growing capacity for surveillance. We have been concerned for a long time about China’s capacity for hacking into personal emails and access to our phones, as with the developing capacity of the Great Firewall to block information (which the current generation is “learning to live with“), but this is by far the least of our worries today and over the next twenty years.
China has used Xinjiang as a testing ground for the development of AI-empowered surveillance. It has the ability to pick out faces in a crowd, identify them, follow them, and see who they associate with. (These associates, in turn, can be followed, in a widening network of interpersonal connections.) This surveillance technology is probably at it its maximum in Xinjiang but is being rolled out steadily nationwide. While we don’t know the exact limits of their abilities, the technology for reading lips and for isolating voices in a crowd exists, so it is possible that conversations can likewise be recorded. China is certainly moving that way: to a database of voices with surveillance implications. Facial recognition is used for routine things ranging from paying for products to tracking student attudenace at school to determining how much toilet paper you should get.
The intersection of surveillance with China’s new national Social Credit System is nearly of apocryphal proportions: the SCS determines access to transportation, markets, jobs, education, etc., and can be affected by who you associate with, your Party standing, etc. This will regulate society and can be an effective jailer: if you hang out too much with foreigners, your SCS might be reduced, and you might no longer have access to planes, trains, taxis, or the subway system. China doesn’t have to send you to prison camp; it can imprison you in a certain section of life and keep you from affecting other areas of life. This could hamper movements.
Trying to get around these systems will be impossible and illegal. Already VPNs are generally outlawed, and you can get in trouble for accessing them or selling them (companies have some wiggle room, but not much). Surveillance cannot be avoided with all-pervasive cameras. It can penetrate things like hats and scarves. It’s monitoring the movements of cars.
China is complimenting surveillance and the SCS with a grid system of surveillance (neighbors reporting on neighbors) rolling out nationwide and with an inexorable move to a cashless society (where all transactions can be monitored). The three of these approaches are leading not to new laws, but to better enforcement of existing laws and tightening controls on churches, which can be stifling. (The Communist Party of today in China is, notably, not about governance, but about control of governance.) And even if you are not in China, you will still be subject to its influence. Through the impact of Chinese media abroad and through government departments that follow Chinese nationals (also FP and Chinoresie), control is exerted. It’s not limited to Chinese citizens: foreign companies that want to do business with China are likewise coming under its influence, to the extent of determining which business systems they use (ones that China has access to), the business decisions they make, and who they hire and fire. And an even more ominous shadow: the control of the Party, the technologies used, and the methodologies will leak into Africa (where China is influencing everything from development to wars to peacemaking to elections) and other places touched by the Belt & Road initiative (“building the post-Western world“). China’s pattern is welcomed by would-be authoritarians and despots, and the pattern/technology is being implemented even in some free countries (not necessarily with direct links to China, but once the pattern is there, the tech will be welcomed). Some free countries will welcome it and spin it as “tracking citizens will help make a city better.” And China is also demanding information about people in other countries from those national governments.
None of this will make life easy on the church, or for the spread of the Gospel: we think a lot about things like “Back to Jerusalem” and China missionaries, but I’m a little surprised that this piece on Han mission work among ethnic minorities doesn’t mention the challenge of these issues. China is already cracking down on would-be mission efforts to other nations. And I have reports of both foreigners and nationals working amongst various groups in China who have been identified on surveillance; the nationals have been detained for questioning and the foreigners have been forced out (or not had their visas renewed).
Still, I don’t believe the darkest days of the church are behind it. The church has thrived in many places of overt persecution; in fact, persecution in China has already been shown to strengthen the church. Let us watch these trends with discerning but courageous eyes.