WeChat, Facial Recognition in China’s Police State Targets Falun Gong

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is known to have constructed the most robust internet and mass-surveillance system in the world. The Communist regime deploys this system to suppress freedom of expression and religion, including to target Falun Gong practitioners. Over the past year, numerous cases have emerged of Falun Gong practitioners being identified, detained, and prosecuted because of these technologies.

WeChat Discussions, Information Sharing Lead to Arrests

The Chinese messaging app WeChat is owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent and has over one billion monthly active users worldwide. Tencent, like all large companies in China, must follow the Communist Party’s censorship and surveillance policies. In recent years, human rights groups have reported on numerous cases of Chinese citizens who were detained and sentenced after sham trials to long prison terms, simply because they tried to share information on WeChat, including about Falun Gong. Since January 2020, using its network of sources in China, the website Minghui.org has documented several new cases of WeChat users being detained or prosecuted because of Falun Gong-related content. For example:

  • Ms. Zhai Zihui: Ms. Zhai, a 29-year old dance teacher from Liaoning Province took up Falun Gong in 2019, later sending a message to a friend about it through WeChat. She was summoned by the police in early August and warned not to do it again. She was subsequently arrested on August 23, 2019 when she gave an acquaintance a USB drive with information related to Falun Gong on it. She was indicted on February 11, 2020 and is awaiting trial.
  • Ms. Lu Yanling: After passing along otherwise censored information about the coronavirus over WeChat, Ms. Lu from Jilin Province, who practices Falun Gong, was arrested on January 27, 2020 and placed under administrative detention for 15 days.
  • Mr. Chen Geng: On February 16, 2020, Mr. Chen Geng of Fujian Province sent a message on WeChat mentioning Falun Gong. The same day his account was blocked and he was arrested with his home being ransacked; he was sent to Pingtan County Detention Center.
  • Mr. Wang Wenhao and Ms. Guo Wenyan: Falun Gong practitioner Mr. Wang of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region was monitored through WeChat then arrested in late April 2020; he was held for 20 days. On April 29, Ms. Guo Wenyan, from the same WeChat group, was also detained and had her home ransacked. Her niece, who does not practice Falun Gong, was also detained and interrogated. Both were released later that day.

Facial Recognition Deployed to Monitor, Detain Falun Gong Practitioners

The 2020 Annual Report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom states, “The Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor religious minorities.”

Indeed, the CCP’s high-tech surveillance state is capable of monitoring Chinese citizens anywhere in the country, using a combination of several technology projects such as Skynet and Dazzling Snow. Numerous Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested through the use of these technologies and systems.

Sign up for our newsletter

Skynet is a massive urban surveillance and facial recognition system. According to some estimates Skynet could have up to 600 million cameras installed in China—approximately one camera for every two people in the country. Dazzling Snow is the CCP’s rural counterpart to Skynet, which uses cameras to monitor citizens throughout villages and the countryside.  Facial recognition technology enables the cameras to quickly identify citizens.  Falun Gong practitioners known to police have long been considered targets of detailed surveillance, with their biometrics and other data collected and stored in “key individual” databases for over a decade, facilitating cross-referencing and identification. The following are several cases from recent years, where Falun Gong practitioners were clearly detected in different parts of China using facial recognition systems and subsequently detained:

  • Ms. Li Guiying and Ms. Zhu Lanxui: These two elderly women, aged 81 and 66 respectively, were arrested on July 23, 2019 from their homes in Gansu province after police used facial recognition to confirm that they were the same women from another police report who had spoken at a town plaza to passersby about Falun Gong. The women were tried by the Yongchang County Court and then sentenced to six months in prison in December 2019.
  • Ms. Wang Xinrong: Ms. Wang from Heilongjiang Province was taking care of her sister-in-law at a hospital when facial recognition cameras spotted her, alerting police on June 4, 2019; they subsequently arrested her, holding her for over 100 days.  
  • Ms. Gao Xiaoqi: On July 15, 2020, police arrested Ms. Gao at her home in Jilin Province after she was identified as a Falun Gong practitioner with Skynet’s facial recognition technology.
  • Ms. Sun Guizhi: Ms. Sun was stopped at the door of a train at a Changchun train station in Jilin and detained by police, after being identified by facial recognition technology on June 22, 2018.