Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang are engaged in a province-wide operation that has installed surveillance cameras in the majority of Protestant Christian churches in a region known as “China’s Jerusalem.”
Officials have forcibly entered church buildings to install cameras in some cases where church followers have offered resistance to the plan, and have intervened to cut off water and electricity to others, sources told RFA.
On Wednesday, authorities cut off public utilities to a Protestant Christian church near Wenzhou that refused to allow police to install surveillance cameras on its premises, church members told RFA.
Under the guise of “health and safety” regulations, authorities cut off utilities to the church in Rui’an Gesan village in Zhejiang’s Wenzhou city on Wednesday.
“They came and cut off our church this morning,” a church member who declined to be named said. “It’s because we refused to have surveillance cameras here; they kept ordering us to install them and we kept on refusing.”
“Several of the ladies in the church blocked their access, so they took these measures [against us].”
Video of the standoff showed a number of women grabbing hold of equipment carried by uniformed police, and a worker on a ladder at the top of an electricity pylon, apparently switching off the supply to the building.
Access to water and electricity is controlled by the grass-roots “neighborhood committees” under the ruling Chinese Communist Party, so the church would need the agreement of local officials before being reconnected, the member said.
Stepping up the pressure
Since launching a province-wide cross-demolition campaign in 2015, authorities in Zhejiang have stepped up pressure on Protestant Christian churches, ordering many to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring of their activities.
Last month, a man was injured in clashes between government religious affairs bureau officials and members of the Banling church in Zhejiang’s Yayang township after more than 100 officials and security personnel tried to install cameras forcibly.
The cutting off of utilities to the Gesan church followed a two-week standoff with the authorities over the requirement, the church member said.
“We didn’t think this was a good idea, because then they would be watching us all the time,” the church member said. “They would be listening in on our Sunday services and on our sermons, so of course this would have a negative impact on us.”
“A lot of churches are having these cameras installed right now, maybe 90 percent of them already have them, and those who don’t are being cut off,” he said.
Authorities issued the church a notification order signed by the health and safety committee of the Nanbin neighborhood committee, according to a copy seen by RFA.
“Major health and safety issues have been detected at your premises, which is used for mass gatherings,” the notice said. “The premises should not be used until these issues have been addressed.”
“Otherwise, further coercive measures will be implemented,” it said.
An employee who answered the phone at the neighborhood committee offices said they weren’t familiar with the situation when contacted by RFA on Wednesday, however.
“My boss isn’t here, so you need to talk with him when he gets out of his meeting,” the employee said.
China’s deteriorating religious freedom abuses have now ranked the country among notorious abusers such as North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam, according to a report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom last month.
China was singled out alongside North Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar as a “country of particular concern,” the group said, calling on the U.S. government to exert diplomatic pressure to improve religious freedom there.
The report said the Communist Party’s had subjected North Korean refugees, Protestants, Catholics, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners to imprisonment, torture, and, in some cases, even death.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.