China's Surveillance

02 Dec 2022

The Covid protests and the response of the police, utilizing China’s extensive surveillance system, is a small window into the realities of daily life and what the expansion of the church has to face.

Since the beginning of its surveillance system in 1998, the government has grown increasingly capable of monitoring and controlling the population. Through traditional and modern methods, China observes the movements and actions of many (and perhaps the majority) of its citizens, watching and attempting to control their behavior and opinions.

The extensive use of CCTV cameras in public and private spaces has been called “big brother with a human face.” Cameras cover streets, airports, and other publicly accessible places, as well as private areas like schools, homes, and even inside people’s apartments, positioned to to capture as much activity as possible. Facial recognition systems can immediately identify people seen by the cameras, track them across different cameras, and link them to personal information such as their identity, address, and activities.

The government also uses phone sniffers to identify the digital devices used by those caught on camera and link phone data with their movements. Communications–social media, instant messaging, phone calls, texts–are all monitored. The government employs sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence systems to detect and analyze unwanted behavior. China has been taking additional steps to vet all comments and “likes”—simply “liking” an illegal item can land you in trouble.

Further, news and media are heavily censored, and external news sources are blocked (aka The Great Firewall), and it is well known that China is observing both its citizens overseas and foreign targets and exporting its technology for use in other places.

There has been plenty of analysis suggesting the social credit system is not widely implemented—that it is only a “hodge-podge” of technologies. While that is true, this should not be conflated with the pervasiveness or effectiveness of surveillance. A relatively good case study of the monitoring systems can be seen in the past week.

Of course, when it comes to what’s happening in China, we see through a glass darkly. However, what does seem obvious is that China is avoiding a “mass event” (a la 1989) and instead using the data generated by surveillance to disrupt the protests by (1) encouraging people not to protest further, (2) arresting some as a “signal,” and (3) simply causing some to disappear. Removing “hubs” and interrupting/stopping communications is a classic way of disrupting a decentralized network.

It has been interesting to see China’s “censorship machine” being “stress tested” by the number of videos being posted—but it doesn’t mean the total system is close to breaking. Think of it as a set of modules: the censorship part is being stressed (maybe) to keep up with real-time postings, but the “store-for-later-search” part is almost certainly working just fine. Or, my far more cynical view: while it appeared the government treated the protests with a light hand–at times even being overwhelmed and overloaded–it seems clear those involved in the demonstrations were being surveilled. Faces and phone locations are recorded. Data is preserved for months. By not interrupting protesters in the first few days, the government can identify the relationships between individual protesters. Police can extrapolate the “hub” individuals from this. It’s already clear the data is being used to track down participants and call, visit, and even arrest them. All of this is true regardless of what China does about the Covid rules themselves.

This is the sort of thing the church in China is already up against, and it is growing more pervasive by the day. When I hear the majority of foreign Christian workers have had to leave China, I am not surprised. It seems obvious it will be increasingly dangerous for outsiders to meet with nationals. It will be increasingly difficult for nationals to meet with nationals. And just because you haven’t been stopped or arrested doesn’t mean you aren’t being observed.

In the United States, I know I am constantly being seen—by traffic cameras, security cameras in buildings, etc.—but I do not feel like I am being surveilled. The cameras do not have the sort of facial recognition that track, monitor, and archive in a universally linked and searchable sort of way. I cannot comprehend what it is like to live in that sort of situation. Yet I think it’s important for those who consider work in China to do just that—to think about what it is like, so we can begin to comprehend how we should interact with Chinese believers.

My thinking is this: Living and working in a surveilled society requires an understanding of the “boundary lines” of surveillance (and a personal decision about how to operate in light of those lines), relational networks that can be maintained despite monitoring, and the ability to joyfully endure despite the circumstances.

Knowing where and how much one is being surveilled is not enough. We would also have to think about “how should we then live?” People who go to protests, for example, know they are being seen. They know they are taking risks. They are, consciously or subconsciously, performing a risk vs. reward calculation. I will not judge the way that calculation is made. It’s enough for me to know I shouldn’t push someone to make that calculation the way I would make it—or the way I think I would make it while sitting here in far more comfort. (Christianity Today has an interesting “survey” of some of the “risk calculations” being made by believers in China during the protests.)

Second, living in a surveilled society requires relational networks that are “normal” in the context of one’s life. I would imagine that street preaching, for example, is “out.” How does the Gospel flow in such a setting? How are disciples made? I would think it has to be primarily over normal day-to-day relationships—families, friendships, workmates, etc. “Mass” evangelism simply isn’t possible.

Finally, the ability to joyfully endure despite the circumstances is always essential. This is not a government where one can “rise up and overthrow the oppressors.” Instead, this situation has much more in common with the early church in Rome, etc., where there is no real prospect of change. One has to keep one’s eyes on the eternal goals of individual souls rather than the short-term prospects of political fortune for the church.

Seeing all these things in the light of eternity is crucial. We are tempted to work for greater political freedom in the short run. In another region of the world, a believer I spoke with said, “I’ve been arrested lots of times. It’s just an opportunity for me to share Jesus with people I don’t normally get to speak to.” I am humbled by the attitude of a person who says, “in whatever situation I am in, I will represent the King.” By the same token, we should try to serve the Chinese church with humility, with some comprehension of the situation they are in, and in ways that will not, unasked for, make life worse for them.