The professorial inauguration of Rachel Harris at SOAS was a splendid multi-media event, with live music, a new short film, and Rachel’s account of her recent fieldwork on the culture of Uyghur refugees in the Zeytninburnu district of Istanbul. For her books on the Uyghur soundscape, click here and here.
Among several fine scholars is the anthropologist Darren Byler, who has recently published several works. His Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (2022; interview here) is a major study. A more succinct account, but just as incisive, is
In the camps (2022).
Detailed case studies of the nightmares endured by innocent people illustrate the web of checkpoints, digital surveillance, and facial recognition, operated by private technology companies and police contractors; and the mass internment projects that are aimed not at a small number of criminals but at the entire Muslim population.
The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality. As the system manufactured these claims, many Muslims were made to hide their moral objections by wearing masks of loyalty to the state programme. Those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps. They were transformed by plastic stools, electric batons, and automated cruelty. They were trained to sit still, cower when appropriate, to accept beatings silently, to sing loudly, to always smile, and to say “Yes!” to every command. They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, fear, and sweat that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards. They stopped noticing the glare of bright lights in the middle of the night. They stopped feeling their constant hunger. They stopped thinking about the distant future or the past.
Smartphones, which became common from 2005, seemed a blessing, allowing people to share information widely—all the more once WeChat became popular from 2010. Sharing knowledge with Islamic communities abroad was just one aspect of this. This soon turned into a “phone disaster”, as state scrutiny of the device became a major tool in its “War on Terror”.
As Byler discovers, the chain of guilt leads to tech companies in the USA, and within the PRC to the forced labour of factories both in Xinjiang and in the Chinese heartland. Meanwhile camp guards, technicians, and “teachers”—Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh—were also desensitised, although many were deeply traumatised. A Muslim women, conscripted from her primary school job to teach Chinese to camp inmates, soon realised that this assignment was no ordinary “training centre”. Finding her first “pupils” were handcuffed elderly men with beards, without thinking, she used the traditional greeting “Assalamu alaykum”.
When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realised I had said something wrong. I introduced myself and started the class. I just stared at the blackboard, and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard.
Gradually she acclimatises to the performance demanded of her. The staff too are under constant scrutiny, their every movement recorded on camera, their own phones monitored.
The violence of functioning within the camp system wore her down. Violating the personhood of others resulted in a violation of her own sense of dignity and self-worth.
Relatives of the disappeared lived in fear too. Family separation has become endemic; “in some Uyghur-majority areas, as many as 70% of children up through age five are now held in Mandarin-medium ‘Kindness Kindergartens’ while their parents are in prisons, camps, or factories“. On the rare occasions when inmates were permitted supervised family visits, it was even more painful to have to go through the charade of pretending that everything was fine.
Those who are eventually released from the camps, cowed into subservience, often find themselves coerced into forced labour as factory workers for Han Chinese companies. The fruits of their labour are sold around the world. Propaganda praises such enterprise as “poverty alleviation” for a backward people, whereby they acquire “life skills”, workers are entirely deprived of legal protections, forming a captive underclass.
One camp survivor observed,
We often became hopeless. Sometimes we really felt hatred towards the Chinese people, to the point where I would catch myself thinking that I could kill Chinese government workers just to feel something. But then I think about all the Han Chinese people I’ve met who also criticise Xi Jinping, who curse him. So I can’t blame the Chinese people for this; they are victims too.
Finally Byler turns to the global picture. He notes that the surveillance system of Xinjiang is an extreme, “perfected” instance of those deployed around the world, and developed in the West at companies such as at his own base in Seattle, with Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, Adobe all deeply implicated.
The management of Covid is also implicated in such systems:
The ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they have to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms. The protection of others depends on […] ignoring the dehumanisation of thousands of detainees and unfree workers.
Byler notes the potential of such technology to further entrench racialization in the USA.
The algorithms make it appear normal that black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognising that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people that do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.
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A more wide-ranging study is