Book review: In the camps of Darren Byler
Per-Åke Westerlund, International Socialist Alternative
Three hundred camps with over a million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are possibly the most brutal expressions of the CCP’s dictatorship in China.
In Darren Byler’s new book, In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, Vera Zhou, Qelbinur, Erbaqyt, Gulzira and others tell their stories from the camps. Byler also points out the link between high-tech global capitalism and increased repression.
For Xinjiang, increased exploitation and a large influx of Han Chinese settlers marked China’s return to capitalism in the 1990s. Abundant raw materials and resources, excellent conditions for agriculture and an important geostrategic position have made it a key region for Beijing. With a market economy, the previous relative autonomy has disappeared. The Han population, which was 6% in 1949, has now grown to over 40%, while Uyghurs are now below 50%.
The process in which Uyghurs have been described as “untrustworthy”, “two-sided” and “terrorists” has coincided with capitalist globalization, new technologies, discrimination and oppression. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Beijing regime began to fear demands for independence and increased interest in Muslim culture and religion in Xinjiang. After September 11 and the “US imperialist war on terror,” the CCP followed the same path. The two powers have cooperated on counterterrorism measures with China urging the United States to capture the Uyghurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan and bring them to the notorious Guantanamo camp. None of the 22 Uyghurs detained had been involved in jihadist wars.
In 2014, Beijing declared its own “people’s war on terrorism”, criminalizing the 15 million Muslims in Xinjiang. Byler describes the background. In 2009, the racist lynching of two Uyghur factory workers who had been forced to relocate to southeast China’s Guandong Province led to mass protests in Xinjiang. Police firing shots at crowds and killing protesters sparked riots in which 130 Han Chinese were killed. This was followed by the militarization of society against the population, increasing the already high mood against discrimination, land grabbing, etc. 2013-14 also saw violent attacks on Han civilians by Uyghur individuals.
During this period, social media and smartphones entered Xinjiang. Many young people, in particular, began to learn more about the rest of the world, including their history and culture. Muslim imams online have reached a new audience.
Checkpoints, camps and birth rate
“The people’s war on terrorism” transformed Xinjiang. Byler sums it up:
“In the space of half a decade, the state implemented a system of checkpoints first between counties and then within urban jurisdictions. They established an access card system that restricted the movement of Uyghurs in the region and confiscated the passports of the few Uyghurs and Kazakhs who obtained them. They sent up to 1.1 million state employees to rural Uyghur and Kazakh communities to conduct assessments of “unreliable” Muslims. They hired over ninety thousand additional police assistants to scan Muslim phones and ID cards, producing a police density that rivaled East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall . They also began to build a network of high-security internment camps, which, at the height of detentions, would house between 10 and 20 percent of the adult population – the proportion of the population that regional authorities considered to have grown. the “tumors” of religious extremism. At the same time, the state’s Ministry of Civil Affairs began implementing a “zero illegal birth policy” which, along with rampant family separation caused by detentions, precipitated a drop in birth rates from 50 to 80%.
When Darren Byler for this book returned to Xinjiang, where he has conducted periodical academic research since 2010, 40 of his students and friends were missing. They were in camps.
Checkpoints and technology were used for mass arrests, as Vera Zhou, a University of Washington student visiting her boyfriend, said: “The police scanned Vera’s face and irises. , recorded his voice signature and collected his blood, fingerprints and DNA. She was sent to a camp for using a VPN and visiting foreign websites. She was then released for having been completely “re-educated”. could go back to Seattle and tell her story like that,
Most in the camps have no idea why they were detained, assuming it was because they had visited a mosque, wore a veil or long beard, visited Kazakhstan, or used WeChat on. their cell phones.
One of the main reasons for being detained is for ignoring family planning rules. Beijing’s policy, behind slogans of supporting women against a primitive culture, was aimed at a sharp drop in the birth rate among Uyghurs. Even government employees working in the system are forced to insert IUDs.
The system includes local spies as in fascist and Stalinist dictatorships. “Anyone can be an informant; no one is a guaranteed ally; and the algorithms of the cameras and scanners are always activated.
“Pre-criminals” in the “schools” of the prisons
Most of the detainees are considered “pre-criminals” and subjected to prisons called schools. The book describes the exercise: overcrowded cells with cameras and speakers, it is forbidden to speak Uyghur or Kazakh, prisoners are ordered to confess, watch television and learn to quote Xi Jinping and Chinese patriotic songs, not to be allowed out of the cell apart from a few seconds of downpours once a week. Any movement or conversation in the cells would immediately result in sanctions. The guards used both batons and electric batons, as well as shouting. Obtaining food required a lot of chanting and chanting as the food was provided by Xi.
CPC regional secretary Chen Quanguo summed up the character of the camps: “Teach like a school, be run like a military, and defend yourself like a prison,”
The number of 300 camps is based on official tenders for construction, satellite images and interviews with former detainees and camp workers. Official statistics also show that 533,000 were prosecuted in Xinjiang in 2017-2020, six times the national average, and more than 500,000 children were sent to boarding schools.
State and private cooperation
The “war on terror”, criminalizing the entire Muslim population of Xinjiang, is closely linked to heavy investments in infrastructure and industry. Beijing is heavily dependent on oil, gas, cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, both domestically and for export. An operation to move one million textile jobs to the region is underway, exploiting low wages and forced labor conditions. Most of the low-value textile products have left other Chinese provinces because they are no longer profitable. The state subsidizes companies that move to Xinjiang.
Workers are recruited by force. Those released from the camps are told they must choose between the factory or be sent back to the camps. The wages are extremely low, with random deductions made by the bosses. The workers are placed in dormitories, separated from their families.
Private tech and surveillance companies have made huge profits and developed advanced technologies for facial recognition and “smart cities”. Likewise during the pandemic. Byler tells how Amazon bought Chinese heat mapping systems to monitor body temperature in the workplace.
Security investments in Xinjiang have increased by 50% since 2016, with 1,400 private companies competing for orders worth $ 8 billion.
The concept of smart cities is presented as helping its citizens, reducing emissions and other positive measures, but it is essentially a system of control, surveillance and possible repression. For politicians and capitalists, it is presented as a system of protection of private property. It is a fast growing and very profitable business.
Along with smart cities, techniques used in Xinjiang are also common in counterterrorism policies and border controls against refugees. Byler gives the examples of the southern borders of the United States and the police departments in most cities. He also reports that British counterterrorism experts were invited to Xinjiang in 2017.
Behind Seattle and Seoul stands Xinjiang
Byler compares today’s globalization to the 1800s. He quotes historian Jason Moore who said “Behind Manchester is the Mississippi.” This was based on Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the Manchester textile industry which dominated the world, and was made possible by the Mississippi slave system.
The leading company in China behind the 1984-type system in Xinjiang and in China, Megvii, has been particularly close to Microsoft and the University of Washington in Seattle. Microsoft vice president Kai-Fu Lee has invested venture capital in Megvii, which has its US headquarters near Microsoft and recruited leading IT academics in the United States. It was modeled on Silicon Valley and the American tech industry.
With these resources, Megvii has developed its ++ facial recognition system. Including a Uyghur alarm. In the United States, it can be used against blacks. “In many ways, Xinjiang’s re-education tools were a product of this world,” Byler concludes, and “the world, not just China, has a problem with surveillance.”
Based on Jason Moore and Engels, he states that behind Seattle is Xinjiang. Other leading companies globally, such as Amazon, Google and Adobe, as well as Samsung of Seoul are also linked to Megvii.
In China, one of Megvii’s main investors was Alibaba, the mega-company keen to follow similar investments from its US counterparts, Amazon and Google. The main force, however, was the state. In 2017, Megvii established a “deep partnership” with police in 256 cities and regions in China.
Byler’s book, like his other writings on Xinjiang, is very informative. Any accusation by Beijing that it represents US imperialism has no basis. The struggle against racist colonial oppression in Xinjiang goes hand in hand with the struggle against American multinationals and the state. The lessons learned from the fight against repression should be shared by workers and young people around the world.
The necessary internationalist and socialist conclusions are developed in the analysis and struggles of chinaworker.info and International Socialist Alternative. The fate of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs is linked to the struggle in China. As one of the witnesses to the book, Erbqyt said, “I cannot blame the Chinese people for this, they are also victims”.