China’s Digital Authoritarianism Targets Religious Minorities

Kate Cvancara on August 6, 2020

China is targeting religious minorities with advanced technological surveillance networks, according to experts speaking at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) webinar hearing led by USCIRF Chair, Gayle Manchin, on July 22. Artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, DNA collection, and social media regulations track minorities in China–such as the Uyghurs, Falun Gong, and Tibetans–resulting in the ruthless arrests of millions who are forced to labor, concentration camps, sterilization, abortion, rape, and even mental incapacitation.

Although China implements nothing short of “genocidal population control measures,” the CCP does not specify which religious behaviors count as “extremist,” which allows authorities to justify internment using vague data points, according to Chris Meserole, the Deputy Director of the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution. As a result, 10 percent of Uyghur Muslims suffer in concentration camps.

Methods of persecution are becoming more technologically sophisticated. With the help of companies like Hikvision and Dahua, the CCP has installed hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras that are designed to distinguish Uyghurs and Tibetans from other ethnic groups. “This is the first time,” Tony Perkins, Vice Chair of USCIRF noted, “a government is known to have intentionally used artificial intelligence for racial profiling.”

Anurima Bhargava, also Vice Chair of USCIRF, likewise concluded that authoritarian abuse of the “Smart City” programs will “rank among the biggest challenges facing the region.”

Besides cameras, DNA testing kits that differentiate Han Chinese from Uyghurs and Tibetans are transported to China from Thermo Fisher, an American-based company. At the same time, the “Great Firewall” removes any blog and social media post promoting Uyghur and Tibetan culture, as well as anything “deemed offensive to the Communist Party.”

“The victim of these abuses have one thing in common,” Anurima Bhargava observed, “they are members of a minority population that has, for centuries, peacefully practiced their faith.”

Faith, of course, is the real threat and target of the CCP. Religious minorities are dangerous because they do not bend the knee to the state. Persecution is the consequence that technology makes inescapable. Cameras, in fact, are required on church pulpits and the combined information from video surveillance, GPS tracking, and other data tracks religious communities all over China, including China’s millions of Christians.  

However, Americans make this persecution possible because China’s surveillance depends on imports from American companies, like Intel and Nvidia.

“This is where The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has taken action,” Bhargava reported. The BIS allows investigators to find bad actors and harmful items by using the Entity List which imposes license requirements. Acting Under Secretary of Industry and Security Cordell Hull reported that the BIS recently added 48 entities to the Entity List because of their role in repression, detention, forced labor, and technological surveillance of minorities in China. Thus, progress can be made when companies are held accountable.

But US government trade restriction will not be enough to prevent religious repression. US investors are also a concern. US investors –both public and private – are investing in Chinese technology companies that support human rights abuses. Amy Lehr, Director of the Human Rights Initiative at Center for Strategic and International Studies, concluded that “there is no US body charged with such oversight of outgoing venture capital.”

The ultimate solution resides in public trust. “The US should ensure that it is the leading producer of trusted new technology,” Lehr argued. If companies integrate human rights concerns into product development, then the resulting public trust will serve as a lasting foundation for progress.

The speakers conclude by offering tangible steps that Americans can take towards preventing religious persecution. They said that our institutions can keep controlling exports, push for accountability in US companies, and adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and publicly report their implementation.

Meserole additionally called for the international community to pressure the CCP into allowing independent monitors. The monitors would directly investigate religious minorities’ situations and work together to block the sales of technology that China uses for repression.

Ultimately, critiquing the CCP’s digital authoritarianism will not be enough without the United States and its democratic allies upholding rigorous standards in development and trade.

  1. Comment by Lee Cary on August 7, 2020 at 7:52 am

    China is a very religious nation – of about 1,400,000,000 people.

    They have one religion: They bow to the roughly 80,000,000 members of the Chinese Community Party.

    If they know what’s good for them.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.