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Friday, December 22, 2023

Book Review: “In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony” Authored by Dareen Byler

Describing the maximum-security “re-education” facilities that the Chinese Communist Party has built-in Xinjiang since 2017, it is difficult to avoid comparisons to concentration camps.

Tragedies such as the Boer War, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet gulags provide illustrative context but are only partial analogies. While some forms of repression from the 20th century still exist, the modern world of high-tech surveillance has produced new types of control.

In his book, In the Camps, University of Washington anthropologist Darren Byler refers to these “continuities and ruptures” when describing Xinjiang’s mass internment system.

In this intimate, sombre, and damning account of the forces that led China to intern and “re-educate” more than one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim people in Xinjiang, Byler argues that the camp system is, at the very least, on a scale and in a degree of cruelty that surpasses all obvious contemporary parallels.

“The surveillance system itself generated presumptions of guilt and criminal behaviour,” Byler composes. China maintains that the facilities’ Chinese lessons and courses on Chinese Communist party ideology were provided as a form of “vocational training” to prevent the spread of “extremist” ideas. The Xinjiang government announced in September 2020 that these programs would end, a claim contested by Uyghur activists abroad.

Byler’s conclusion serves as a reminder that China’s internment program, which he identifies as the largest internment of a religious minority since World War II, has global implications for surveillance and modern policing that should be considered separately.

As one of the few anthropologists who took advantage of a period of relative openness to conduct fieldwork in Xinjiang before the Chinese government severely restricted access to the region, Byler’s compelling case is testimony from a, broad cross-section of Xinjiang society. Former Uyghur detainees, a contact law enforcement officer, a camp instructor, and a Kazakh farmer are among his interviewees.

In 2017, a previously small-scale “re-education” programme morphed into a vast system of internment camps where anyone suspected of “extremist thoughts” or “pre-crimes” was sent without trial. These various personal accounts describe widespread confusion and fear.

There, they were subjected to cruel and sometimes bizarre rituals, ostensibly to rid them of erroneous ideas, such as singing renditions of “patriotic” songs before being fed. “When you are hungry, it is extremely difficult to sing as they requested. Sometimes they would yell, “Sing again! Sing again!” a former detainee explained to Byler as if it were a game.

These vivid accounts are interspersed with succinct descriptions that situate the current situation in Xinjiang within a long history of colonial power, dehumanising technologies, and state-sponsored forced labour. “Over the past three decades, Xinjiang has become a classic peripheral colony, serving the needs of Shanghai and Shenzhen,” the author writes.

Byler argues that those implicated in Xinjiang’s “penal colony” are party officials, the white-collar workers of China’s artificial intelligence start-ups, and the Hong Kong boutiques that purchase gloves sewn by Uyghur workers. Moreover, by extension, western consumers, as Xinjiang currently produces “around a quarter” of the world’s cotton.

Despite the global implications of China’s camps, Byler avoids discussing the diplomatic spats sparked by the crackdown and the Western debate over whether or not to label the crackdown “genocide.” Byler does not need the term genocide to convey a sense of tragedy, even if mass internment, birth control, and forced separation of children from their parents meet the definitions of genocide in United Nations conventions.

In contrast, the variety and consistency of testimonies constitute a powerful rebuttal to the Chinese government’s claim that its critics rely on a handful of unreliable accounts from a few individuals.

The individual accounts of suffering demonstrate the dehumanising effect of the Xinjiang-initiated surveillance and internment system. Byler summarizes the process of being identified as “untrustworthy” and that “the surveillance system itself produced presumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality.” Some could avoid punishment through displays of loyalty, but “those who lacked these masks were dehumanised in front of the camp’s lights and cameras.”

As a result of this procedure, “[detainees] stopped noticing bright lights during the middle of the night. They ceased to experience constant hunger. They ceased contemplating the distant future and the past.” China in the Occupied East Turkistan Region, also known as Xinjiang, has inflicted severe psychological damage on the region’s inhabitants.

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