The Latest Victims of China’s Surveillance State

Map of reported cases of Falun Gong detentions involving surveillance cameras from November 2022 to November 2023.

Map of reported cases of Falun Gong detentions involving surveillance cameras from November 2022 to November 2023.

Pervasive state surveillance has facilitated the detention of over 50 Falun Gong practitioners since November 2022

Last December, surveillance research firm IPVM discovered alarms in Chinese smart policing software by Hikvision that alerts security forces of Falun Gong practitioners, protestors, and other religious believers in a given area. 

Such tech-enabled targeting of Falun Gong believers is not new. Since at least 2008, practitioners of the spiritual discipline have been entered into databases such as Hongda Software’s Public Security Personnel Information Management Work System. According to researchers Emile Dirks and Sarah Cook, “Police were able to record who introduced practitioners to the movement, where and with whom they practiced, and their level of spiritual dedication—criteria that resemble precursors to more recent police assessments of Uighurs as ‘safe,’ ‘average,’ and ‘unsafe.’”

But how often is this technology actually being used to detect, detain, and punish peaceful religious believers and grassroots activists?

Reports from Minghui, an overseas Falun Gong website that publishes first-hand accounts from citizen journalists across China, show that video surveillance played a significant role in the detention and sentencing of dozens of Falun Gong practitioners over the past year.

Surveilling a Nation

High-tech surveillance has swelled in China over the past two decades, but its expansion accelerated at an even faster pace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not a question of ‘double the surveillance.’ I can tell you now that there are now at least four times the number of cameras, compared to pre-pandemic levels,” a Falun Gong practitioner who left Shaanxi Province in 2023 told the Falun Dafa Information Center.  “In the smaller communities, they have added surveillance to areas that did not have them previously. On one pole at any street intersection, there has to be a camera for each angle.”

Such pervasive surveillance across China is facilitating the CCP’s ability to crackdown on religious practice and dissent. From November 2022 to November 2023, 54 Falun Gong practitioners were detained after being caught by cameras engaging in peaceful practice of their belief or information dissemination. The cases occurred in 25 cities throughout 15 provinces and municipalities.

Analysis of the cases found that the age range of these Falun Gong practitioners spans from 49 to 87 years old, and that the vast majority are women (45 of the 54). They hold professions in fields such as education, civil service, accounting, law, and factory work.

All 54 believers were detained after being surveilled participating in activities such as talking to people outside supermarkets, hanging posters in public spaces, or leaving flyers at people’s doors. Thirty-nine of the 54 remain in detention, with two released on bail, and 13 held only temporarily. So far, 16 of the 39 have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 months to 5.5 years and were fined as much as 50,000 yuan (USD 6,860). At least seven of these prosecutions were also reported through Weiquanwang, a network of lawyers and human rights defenders.

In some cases, monitoring that triggered detentions resulted in tragic consequencesIn the northeastern city of Yushu in Jilin Province, a 70-year-old man was sentenced to four years in prison after police spotted him on surveillance cameras hanging a poster. The man, Mr. Ma Changqing, died in custody on September 18, 2023.

Information Sharing Targeted

Ms. Jia Ying took up Falun Gong in 2007 despite the CCP’s brutal crackdown on the practice. The resident of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province credits Falun Gong with improving her health and teaching her how to be a good person. She has since joined efforts to raise awareness about the persecution.

On May 5, 2023, police officers broke into her home, arrested her, and confiscated her Falun Gong books. According to Minghui, several guards took her into a small room and beat her before leaving her handcuffed for a week. What led to Ms. Jia’s arrest? Surveillance cameras had detected her distributing leaflets around Xi’an, China’s ancient capital with a population of over 8 million.

The leaflets Ms. Jia was arrested for distributing are part of Falun Gong practitioner’s broader information campaign. This awareness raising generally addresses four key areas: debunking demonizing CCP propaganda about Falun Gong, exposing the rights abuses perpetrated against practitioners, contextualizing the persecution within the Party’s history of atrocities, and encouraging people to quit the CCP­­­, distancing themselves from its crimes.

Falun Gong practitioners have also developed and distributed software for Chinese people to break through the Great Firewall. With access to outside information, practitioners hope others will gain an accurate depiction of the CCP and Falun Gong that cannot be found in state-run media. Ms. Yang Yuzhen from Qingdao, 87, was targeted after surveillance footage showed her pulling a flash drive out of her pocket. Police thought it may have contained VPN software due to her being known as a Falun Gong practitioner. In September, Ms. Yang was sentenced to one year in prison.

An estimated 20 to 40 million Falun Gong practitioners continue their efforts at spreading information about their faith and the CCP’s persecution, but the risk of detection is growing as the Party reinforces and improves its surveillance methods.

“There are many practitioners who go out to the streets to distribute flyers,” says a practitioner who left Beijing in late 2022. “If you’re caught on camera distributing flyers, police will confirm through the surveillance tape and arrest you. The intensity increases annually.”

Public and Private Surveillance Used

In addition to public surveillance cameras used by the Chinese security apparatus, some Chinese citizens have reported practitioners for distributing informational materials in their areas after they detected the activists on their own surveillance cameras.

In October 2021, a man at an apartment complex in Fujian Province saw copies of The Nine Commentaries, a nine-part critique of the CCP that exposes its abuses throughout history, left outside apartment doors. He went to a neighbor’s unit that had a surveillance camera to see who had left the books, and claimed it was Ms. Chen Xue, a teacher at Fujian Institute of Information Engineering, and reported her to the police. Ms. Chen was tried in February 2023 and later sentenced to three years in prison.

In another case, a resident in Liaoning Province reported video footage of a man hanging Falun Gong materials on the resident’s doorknob. Police accused Mr. Wang Lin of being the man in the video, a charge he denies. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to four years and fined 8,000 yuan (USD 1,100) in June.

These cases illustrate blurred societal and state-led surveillance. Citizens indoctrinated with CCP propaganda are led to carrying out Beijing’s initiatives, not realizing they are condemning innocent people to prison and torture.

Meanwhile, low-tech forms of monitoring Falun Gong practitioners remain prevalent.

“The authorities used to follow me as I was going about my day,” says the practitioner from Shaanxi Province. “They have my photo and information, so they know where to find me. There’s no difference whether there are cameras or not.”