Rome persecuted minority religions by making a hideous example of the pious. In the third century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian executed Christians by burning or flaying them alive, razing their churches, and forcing priests at the point of a sword to publicly offer sacrifices to the Roman gods.
We all know how that turned out. In one of the great boomerangs of history, the persecution of Christians and heroism of martyrs evoked sympathy and curiosity from fellow Romans, opening the way to the conversion of the whole empire.
The People’s Republic of China seems to have learned from this history that public spectacle can be counterproductive. It is developing intricate, insidious, and largely nonpublic ways to use technology to persecute religious minorities in order to shrink them out of existence. The use of technology to persecute individuals is something that could happen in the United States as well.
First, some background: ChinaAid, a religious persecution watchdog, released its annual persecution report for 2022, in which it found China is escalating its attacks on Chinese Christian churches. At the center of Beijing’s tightening squeeze on religious freedom is a smarmily named “Smart Religion” app that applicants must fill in with their personal information before being allowed into a worship site.
And when compliance with this and many other rules falter, Chinese authorities fabricate fraud charges against churches. They effectively outlaw tithing, starving churches of income. Many pastors have been imprisoned.
China has recently deployed harsh regulations to target online religious content as well. Several Christian websites have been purged from the internet. WeChat, the primary texting app in China, implemented censorship blocks against common Christian words and terminology.
In short, while no one has been flayed alive on public television, no one needs to be. Instead, China is using technology to distribute slow, gut-wrenching discouragement, intimidation, and censorship to do the job. Most insidiously, China’s persecution demonstrates how technology can be used to suppress the faithful in a manner that appears softer than the persecutions of old, but that ultimately work in a much more comprehensive – and perhaps, effective – way.
The example of China should serve as a warning to Americans of all stripes about the value of data privacy.
Americans’ personal information – including not only our religion, but also our ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and income level – is gathered by data brokers and sold to commercial and governmental actors, including a dozen federal agencies. Our government thus has warrantless access to similar information as in China, but without the need for a controversial app.
As we have said many times before, our government, often with the best of intentions, is putting together all the pieces needed for a Chinese-style surveillance state at home.
We trust that our data won’t be used against us as it is in China, but there are currently few legal protections against it. U.S. government agencies have already used private data to monitor religious minorities, including apps for Muslim prayer and dating. That’s why we support measures that would prevent data brokers from selling our personal information to law enforcement and intelligence agencies without authorization by a court.
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