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Tear down the firewalls of totalitarianism

14 April 2022

Authoritarian regimes are increasingly cracking down on religious freedom in the virtual realm, says Sam Brownback

WE ARE in a very serious period in world affairs. Russia, China, and terrorist states such as Iran and Afghanistan have formed a perilous axis. It is an axis that will dominate world discussion for several years. Free societies must come together, with all our difficulties and differences, to fight the growing scourge of authoritarianism. It is not just on physical battlefields that we have to confront it: there is a chilling growth of authoritarianism in the virtual realm.

There is nothing new about authoritarian regimes’ using cyber technology to further their aims in this new hybrid warfare. As Governor of the state of Kansas, I saw how we were constantly being probed by groups from China, Russia, and Iran, who were trying to hack into our state’s systems. I would think “Why are you bothering us? What are you after?”

We are now far beyond the odd bit of cyber phishing. We are entering a new era of authoritarian control that dwarfs even what Orwell describes in 1984.

I WANT to highlight what’s taking place in China, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Chen Quanguo, the recent Chinese Communist Party Chairman over Xinjiang, has put in place a virtual police state. President Xi has given him all the resources needed to do this.

There are an estimated one million people in physical concentration camps. Beyond that, there is blanket online and physical surveillance. Cameras are everywhere, in every public space, linked to AI facial-recognition systems. This is paired with genetic sampling of Uyghur people’s hair and blood samples, and tracking of their cell phones.

Xinjiang State has the technology to recognise you by your face, or your walk. If you do not meet the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPP’s) expectations of a “good citizen”, your social-credit score goes down. If you go to a mosque, attend a religious service, sport a beard, or fast during Ramadan, you are scored down and excluded from travel, education, or even housing.

The Chinese are now moving to digitise their currency. If they move to a digital currency, the Central Bank of China will know every single financial transaction that takes place in the country. If the CCP decide that they do not like what they see of your life choices, they can turn your money off. You will not be able to buy or sell without the approval of the Chinese dragon.

Xinjiang is no one-off. It is the future of oppression. It is a “beta test” for how a virtual police state will operate across China and beyond. There are strong signs that they are already exporting this model of a virtual police state to other authoritarian regimes. We are going to see this Chinese model crop up again and again. We’re already seeing it in North Korea. Wherever this technology takes root, you will see stronger persecution of that country’s freedoms, and certainly of its religious minorities.

The message to China’s Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong, and other religious groups is loud and clear: go about your business, make your money, take care of your family — just do not be serious about your faith. The highest authority must always be the Chinese Communist Party.

About 80 per cent of the world’s population organise their life around a set of religious values and beliefs — something that is higher and more powerful than the government. That is a challenge to all authoritarian regimes.

WE MUST confront this expansion of the virtual police state wherever we see it. Underpinning it in China is the Chinese internet firewall, where what citizens can see and discuss is strictly limited and constantly monitored [News, 4 March].

If we do not stand up, more and more authoritarian regimes will put up their own internet firewalls and cut off their people from information. We must push back strongly, and not allow this model of the web to be normalised.

It is not only the governments that we must confront. It wasn’t the CCP that took down apps for the Bible and the Qur’an recently: it was Apple, following Communist Party instructions. Of course, companies will lose their access to the Chinese market if they act otherwise; they are in a tough spot.

Such internet control does not allow human free will to operate, nor does it satisfy the desire for human flourishing. We must confront Xi Jinping, Russia, Iran, and other totalitarian states, as Ronald Reagan did, and tell them: “Tear down this firewall.” If they will not do it freely, we need to put the technologies in place to breach these barriers to truth.

Right now, in Ukraine, we are witnessing the importance of standing up to totalitarianism. Ukrainians’ courage inspires us all, but the battlefields in these hybrid wars are changing fast. We must oppose the virtual police state wherever it arises.

Sam Brownback was United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. This is an edited version of his speech to Open Doors’ conference “Digital Persecution: The new human rights frontier”, in London, on 25 March.

Watch Sam Brownback’s talk speech here, and a speech by the UK Director of World Uyghur Congress, Rahima Mahmut, here

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