Open Doors released its 2020 World Watch List report yesterday, highlighting the fact that the most populated country in the world has now become a surveillance state, and this widespread invasion of privacy is being used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities in China.

The report details the massive expansion of a facial recognition software used to track people’s movements. Independent reporters also released an article describing the systematic monitoring of social media by police forces, often resulting in raids and spontaneous interrogations of students and public servants. The implications of such developments, however, cut more deeply than merely having a Beijing helicopter parent.

A systematic ethnic cleansing campaign, mounted by the communist party against ethno-religious groups it feels threaten “national unity,” has brought many vulnerable minorities (Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, other Muslim minority groups, and practitioners of Falun Gong) into the crosshairs of one of the 21st century’s most brutal regimes. The expansion of technological tracking makes the Chinese authorities nearly inescapable. Robbed of their ability to hide, and with both ancestral ties and economic needs tying them to the region, China’s minorities now have little recourse but to brace for the onslaught of state-sponsored deprogramming.

Recent revelations of living conditions for ethnic and religious minorities under China’s current communist regime, especially for Uyghurs, suggest that, for some, death may be preferable to what they endure. Either violently abducted or coerced by threats against family members, individuals born into these groups are often forced into vehicles and taken to what the Chinese government cheerfully calls “re-education camps.”

Sayragul Sauytbay (pronounced Say-ra-gul Saut-bye) was a prisoner in one of the camps who managed to escape to Sweden. Her testimony was summarized in an article in The Week:

Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads are shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet. The daily routine begins at 6 a.m. They are learning Chinese, memorizing propaganda songs, and confessing to invented sins. They range in age from teenagers to elderly. Their meals are meager: cloudy soup and a slice of bread. Torture — metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks — takes place in the “black room.” Punishment is a constant… [t]hey are the human subjects of medical experiments… Women are routinely raped.

While Sayragul’s experience hopefully represents only the extreme of camp brutality, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, explains, “I think it’s fair to describe everyone being detained as being subject at least to psychological torture, because they literally don’t know how long they’re going to be there.” Such is not merely the fate of a few thousand dissidents or “terrorists,” as the communist government of China has grown fond of calling them. Scholars estimate that at least 1 million people have been kidnapped into brutal conditions after the communist Chinese regime felt threatened by their religious beliefs. 

To comprehend the magnitude of these internments, briefly consider that the U.S. population in 2015 included 1.1 million medical doctors. Now imagine every physician across the nation being rounded up and sent into prison camps, and you have an idea of the raw scale of China’s program. In the name of “fighting terrorism,” the current Chinese regime has abandoned the role of guardian and become a tormentor of its own people.

Governments, by nature of their authority and scale, have the unique ability to create an organized system of protections for their people. This same power corrupted, however, allows a regime to coordinate its hulking machinery for large-scale atrocities against truly helpless citizens. The evil we confront today is not simply the lawless violence of sectarian warfare across the plains of Kenya and Nigeria, but also technologically advanced regimes like China that have become factories of human suffering, churning out organized misery upon those proclaiming religious faith.

Religious Freedom Day, recognized on January 16, marks the 234th anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, wherein Thomas Jefferson took up a cry that was soon after echoed by every other American state: “No man shall… suffer, on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.” In a masterful brushstroke, Jefferson lead the Founding Fathers in establishing the absolute necessity of equal rights for all people under the state, regardless of their faith tradition.

This protection embodies one of the foundational virtues of the Western democratic tradition, but is far from the norm for people of faith across the world. As the U.S. celebrates its fundamental commitment to religious liberty, we must work harder than ever to raise awareness that the need for freedom of conscience still exists in the world.

Don’t miss our Speaker Series event today at 12 p.m. as we host Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a Uyghur scholar and social advocate who is tirelessly working for her father’s release from China’s prisons.

Samuel Lillemo is a Policy/Government Affairs intern at Family Research Council.