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Guinea pigs for dystopia

Detention, surveillance and profit-making in Xinjiang

By Nick Holdstock

Sayragul Sauytbay during a court hearing in Zharkent, Kazakhstan, 2018|© RUSLAN PRYANIKOV/AFP via Getty Images

January 7, 2022

In the autumn of 2017, the first reports emerged that China was detaining large numbers of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. Over the following year, reports from detainees established a convincing picture of a system designed to inflict psychological (and sometimes physical) harm on the inmates. In July 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh former teacher, fled to Kazakhstan following her release from one of these camps. Having crossed the border illegally, she was arrested and tried, at which point she described the abuses she’d experienced and witnessed. Her case received widespread publicity, yet the Kazakh government, no doubt fearing the ire of its neighbour, refused to grant Sauytbay asylum. In 2019, she was allowed to settle in Sweden. Last year she was named an International Woman of Courage by the Donald Trump administration.

Sauytbay’s memoir, The Chief Witness, describes her early life in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Xinjiang, her career as a primary school teacher, her marriage and family life, the harassment she received from the police, her time in the nameless “re-education” camp – where she was forced to endure a brutal and brutalizing regime – and then her passage to Kazakhstan. Like most accounts of this nature by political exiles, it seeks to establish her as virtuous, principled and implacably opposed to the system from which she has escaped. Such books can be seen as acts of positioning, which are entirely understandable and doubtless necessary for anyone who has gone through a traumatic set of experiences and may feel they are still in a precarious position. Most reviews of this genre praise the courage of the author, show due respect to their suffering, and echo their condemnation of the regime from which they have escaped. I’m happy to do all the above, but in this particular case it has to be in spite of the book, which is frustratingly littered with exaggeration and rumour.

Chief Witness’s central message is that China wants “political control of the entire world” and that “China’s virus of the mind … is far more dangerous than COVID-19”. In support of this claim, Sauytbay relates being shown, while in the camp, a three-stage plan for world domination, including the annexation of China’s neighbours by 2035 and its occupation of Europe by 2055. In her account, this plan was explicitly communicated to the prisoners. There are many reasons…


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