The situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in north-western China has been rapidly deteriorating over the past few years. Local ethnic minorities are targeted by central government’s re-education campaign seeking to sinicize and “normalize” them. Sinopsis interviewed Darren Byler, an anthropologist studying the Uyghurs (currently at the University of Washington) who has recently visited the region to conduct field research. He has been a prominent voice in the international debate about this human rights crisis affecting millions of lives, namely through his website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. What follows is an interview about Uyghur history and culture, the oppression from Chinese state and also about the situation of an academic abruptly entering a heated public debate closely related to his studies.
Why and when did you get interested in studying Uyghurs?
I first became interested in Uyghur society and culture when I visited their homeland in 2003. At the time I was a photography student. I was really taken with the vibrant street life in the Uyghur oasis cities. The courtyard houses and twisting alleyways seemed to have a real vitality, but I could also see that this native way of building a society was on the verge of changing. Chinese state and commercial investments in resource extraction industries such as oil and natural gas were beginning to change the basic fabric of Uyghur native ways of life. This is what prompted me to focus my research on this part of the world. Over the years, this interest was deepened as I built relationships with Uyghur friends.
What specific aspect of the ethnic group are you focusing on the most?
I am interested in understanding the forces that are shaping the lives of a younger generation of Uyghurs. I wanted to know why young Uyghurs want to leave their villages and travel to the city. I also wanted to understand what they find as the enter city life and how they represent this experience. I wanted to know how they navigated new forms of policing and control.
What is the most fascinating thing about Uyghurs for you?
One of the most interesting things I found through my research was the role of friendship in the lives of young Uyghur migrant men. Since many young migrants were delaying marriage in order to travel to the city to make money and follow their passions, they relied on close friendship networks for moral support. These friendships also provided financial stability, helped them to find jobs, and drew them into communities of Islamic piety and cosmopolitan living. I found that the rhythms and intimacies of these friendships, which were cultivated on a daily basis by sharing meals and walking the streets of the city, built tight bonds between men. They also helped young Uyghurs to cope with the overwhelming fear of being disappeared by the Chinese state.
You have been in Xinjiang recently, what is the most striking difference between now and then? Is there something that you think might have escaped all the media attention the region has been getting lately?
Between the time when I first came to Xinjiang in 2003 and my most recent trip in April 2018 there have been large-scale changes in Uyghur urban neighborhoods, towns and villages. In many cases, the courtyard houses that dominated these spaces have been replaced with five-story concrete block apartment buildings. In the city of Ürümchi where I conducted my fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, many of the neighborhoods where I met young migrants have been demolished and the people that lived there have vanished.
Many of these rural-to-urban migrants have simply been forced to return to their home villages. The state used a passbook mechanism to force them out of the city. Others though, up to one million, have been sent to “transformation through education” prison camps. This is particularly the case for young migrants in their 20s and 30s. Since many of these migrants came to city in search of greater religious and cultural freedom, and since many of them used their smart phones to find these forms of freedom, they have been particularly susceptible to “cyber-crime” charges. Because they have accessed unauthorized forms of knowledge over the past few years, they have been labeled “unsafe” and in need of “reeducation.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have been sent to camps to have their worldview eradicated.
What exactly is happening in Xinjiang right now? How does it feel to be on the ground these days?
The authorities in the region are conducting a mass experiment in social engineering. This means that Turkic Muslims across the region, but young Uyghur men and women in particular, are being bound in place by surveillance equipment, checkpoints, reeducation activities, reeducation camp systems and prison sentences. On the ground this means that no matter where one goes, she or he is always being watched by a camera system. Many of these cameras feature hi-definition, face-recognition capabilities. Utilizing AI-assisted technology, these systems automate the tracking of individuals over time and space. They make video searcheable so that each person’s daily activities can be assessed by the system.
It also means that there are tens of thousands of young police officers, both Uyghur and Han, who perform spot checks of IDs and smart phones, throughout the Uyghur areas. Many Uyghurs have joined the police force as low-level officers in order to protect themselves and their families from being sent to the reeducation camps. In the villages, there are over one million state-sponsored civilian workers, most of whom are Han, who monitor Uyghur activities and train villagers in political thought. In many villages a significant percentage of those of military age have been taken to the camps for indefinite periods of reeducation. The camps function as minimum to medium security prisons and demand that detainees confess their crimes, speak Chinese and demonstrate loyalty to the Chinese state.
Would anybody talk to you openly? Or was everybody trying to avoid you?
Many Uyghurs I spoke with were guarded in what they told me. This was not necessarily because they recognized that I was a foreigner, but because they are guarded in how they speak to strangers in general. Since I speak Uyghur with a bit of an accent, many Uyghurs I met assumed I was a “city Uyghur” who had been trained in Chinese. In many cases, Uyghurs I met driving unofficial taxies or pedaling snacks in parks were happy to speak with me as they would with any other Uyghur stranger. After we got to know each other a bit and I explained that I was actually from America they often opened up a bit more about what they knew about the camp system and how it was affecting their families. In other cases though, particularly within sight of cameras, Uyghurs were more reluctant to speak with me beyond basic mundane conversations.
Were you harrassed by the Chinese police? Did you feel watched while in Xinjiang or even in the other parts of China?
I was not overtly harassed by the police. At times I was stopped by police at checkpoints, but typically when I explained that I was a foreigner they were happy to let me continue on my way with only a cursory glance through my passport. Low-level Uyghur police who stopped me at checkpoints were often happy to chat with me in Uyghur.
I was watched more closely in more rural Uyghur areas and at times prevented from traveling beyond checkpoints by police. My sense is that I was most likely watched via camera systems in urban areas. In more rural areas, the police were alerted to my presence and knew who I was as I approached their checkpoints. I was followed on several occasions and stopped from traveling in those areas.
Have any of the people you know disappeared?
Yes, many of the Uyghurs I met during my fieldwork have been taken by the police. In some cases, I have been able to confirm that they were taken to prison or the reeducation centers. It is actually now easier to confirm who has not yet been taken. Of 25 Uyghurs with whom I built my closest friendships in 2014 and 2015, I have been able to confirm that five remain free and that 11 have been taken. These friends range from university professors to precarious migrant workers.
You came to Prague in October to talk about what you call “terror capitalism”, could you tell us a bit more about what the term describes?
This term refers to the security industrial complex that is now driving much of the economy in the region. Since 2009, when there was widespread protests, riots and state violence in the region, the number of private security companies working in the region has risen to more than 1400. Many of these companies are on the cutting edge of Xi Jinping’s vision to surpass Silicon Valley in artificial intelligence development. The Chinese state anticipates expanding investment in AI development to 150 billion dollars by 2030 and, in turn, through this producing approximately 7 trillion dollars in Chinese gross domestic product. From the perspective of Chinese state investment and technology development, the project to control and transform the Uyghur population is a venture capitalist experiment with vast potential.
The reason why it is important to refer to the industrial complex as one marked by “terror,” is because the label “terror” posits that Uyghur and Muslims more generally pose an existential threat to the Chinese nation. As such, Uyghur society can be treated as a space of exception where the normal rules regarding basic human rights no longer apply. In China the term “terrorist” is generally associated only with bodies marked as Muslim, so it allows Chinese leaders, and the Chinese public as a whole, to see it only as a threat associated with a different people in distant borderland. Labeling Uyghur society in this way also provides cover for the Chinese state when confronted with the fact of their crimes against humanity by international institutions such as the United Nations.
Why do you think the situation in Xinjiang got to this horrible state and who is mainly responsible for the various acts of crimes against humanity?
My sense is that the change in approach in Xinjiang came from the central leadership of the Chinese nation. In 2014, soon after violent incidents in Kunming, Beijing and Ürümchi, Xi Jinping and then Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian declared the “People’s War on Terror.” At the outset of this new initiative, the state began to ban public displays of Islamic piety and to place Uyghurs in reeducation camps. Yet it was only until after Zhang was replaced by Chen Quanguo in 2016 that we saw an exponential increase in mass detentions and AI-enabled security infrastructure. It is my sense that Chen, with the support of the Xi administration, made the decision to move from simply a police state security approach to a mass human re-engineering approach in managing the Uyghur population. Since 2016 we have seen the state implement widespread existential damage to basic aspects of Uyghur life—ranging from religious practice to family unity, language use and food culture. Now all of these basic Uyghur social institutions are being erased. These systems and the infrastructures of social erasure would not be possible without vast injections of cash from the central government. My sense is that Chen and other regional authorities are simply implementing what the Xi administration has directed and incentivized them to do.
Is there any resistance left in Xinjiang or do the people seem to be broken?
At this point there is no overt or open resistance to what is happening in the Uyghur homeland. People are simply too afraid to speak or act in defiance to the state. Of course, Uyghurs have embodied memories of a more autonomous forms of Uyghur life that are deeply resilient and resistant in their thinking. But these thoughts can only be expressed in deeply private moments and spaces.
Because the state has penetrated basic aspects of family life, many Uyghurs are deeply worried that Uyghur children who are growing up immersed in Chinese language and values in boarding schools will grow alienated from their society and family life. They worry that Uyghur children will believe the state narratives of Uyghur “backwardness” and criminality and seek to assimilate into mainstream Chinese society.
What do the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang think about the Uyghurs’ plight? Are they sympathetic or more concerned about their own livelihood and maybe even trying to take advantage of the situation?
I have found that Han living in Xinjiang expressed a range of perspectives concerning what was happening to Uyghur society. In general, many of them had limited understanding of what was happening in the camps and Uyghur villages. However, those who grew up in the province and considered themselves “locals” in Xinjiang, expressed a great deal more ambivalence about the human engineering project than those who grew up outside of the province. Locals saw what was happening as reminiscent of the purges of the Cultural Revolution, when entire populations of people were detained without formal charges. They said that what was happening to Uyghurs today was something similar to that time, but they felt as though there was nothing they could do to protect their Uyghur neighbors and friends.
Those who grew up outside of the region often expressed more support for the project. They said that it was necessary in order to address the “Uyghur problem”. They said they could tell that the project was already working because since it had begun they felt much safer when they entered Uyghur neighborhoods or went into their homes. Many of them seemed to appreciate the new sorts of privilege they could openly enjoy as occupiers of Uyghur neighborhoods.
You have also written a great piece on the “relatives” campaign forcing Han Chinese living in Uyghur villages, virtually replacing the people who are now in camps with “foreigners” who surveil the Muslims, could you tell us a bit more about that?
Since 2014, the state has begun a series of campaigns to send over 1 million civil servants to live in or visit Uyghur homes. Over 1.6 million Uyghurs have received these “relatives” since this program began. These “relatives” are tasked with finding out if their Uyghur hosts harbor any resentments toward the state, if they are truly patriotic, and if they still hold onto any religious values. In order to assess this, the “relatives” spend extended periods of time in Uyghur homes asking questions and making observations. They also test their hosts by asking them to drink alcohol with them or eat non-halal food that they prepare for them. They also ask the children in the family about sensitive issues in order to get at the truth of the situation. The “relatives” also attempt to show “warmth” and care to their hosts by asking them about their living standards and providing gifts.
Do you feel this “civilization mission” is accomplishing anything, or is it only creating more ethnic conflict and suspiciousness between the two groups?
This second aspect of the “relative visits” program is reminiscent of the way the American military attempted to “win the hearts and minds” of Afghan and Iraqi civilians after they invaded and occupied their countries. In those cases, the positive effect was quite minimal. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect of producing more resentment and violence in those spaces. In general, I anticipate that these relative visits will produce similar outcomes among Uyghur populations. Uyghurs deeply resent these intrusions into their homes. They also fear that the visitors may send even more of their loved ones to the prison camps. In many cases they feel as though they are forced to perform a kind of gratitude for processes that have destroyed their families and made them feel deeply hopeless. In some cases, I have heard reports of Uyghurs attempting to instrumentalize these relationships with their visitors in order to find jobs, protections from the police, and so on, but these benefits are far outweighed by the sense of threat they feel.
Is there any significant difference between how the Han Chinese living in Xinjiang for longer period of time and the newcomers treat the “relatives” campaign and Uyghurs in general?
Although Han who have grown up in the province express more sympathy for the Uyghurs, in the end there is not a significant difference between how they treat Uyghurs and how recent arrivals to the province treat Uyghurs. The security industry and transformation program has produced a power dynamic that pits Han against Uyghurs in nearly all aspects of life. Individual attempts by Han to mitigate the violence of the system may have the effect of making violence less severe in an individual instance, but at the end of the day Uyghur society is still being erased.
There has been some arguments that Xinjiang is one big Stanford Prison Experiment. Would you agree with that comparison?
The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the way totalitarian systems of control have the effect of normalizing sadistic forms of interpersonal violence. In such systems, whether on an institutional level in a camp or prison or on the level of a police state as in present day Northwest China, former-colleagues, neighbors and friends are compelled to exert authoritarian forms of domination in order to perform their assigned tasks and to protect themselves from punishment. Because totalitarian systems normalize the inhumane treatment of others by saying it is for the greater good or simply because it was what those in authority have determined to be appropriate, it is difficult for those subjected to these systems to refuse to participate in them.
There are several things that make what is happening in Northwest China different and more extreme than the Stanford Prison Experiment. First, what is happening is much larger in scale in terms of time and space. It extends over years and effects an entire society as whole. Second, because it focuses on the elimination of a set of religious beliefs and cultural values much of the trauma that is being inflicted is more directly psychologically damaging rather than simply dehumanizing. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the camps use cutting-edge technology to monitor and control inmates which has the effect of radically reducing all forms of physical and mental autonomy. In the camps, we are told, the sounds and movements of inmates are monitored. Words and gestures are recorded. Even their faces may be monitored for emotions of resistance. It is likely that in some cases these forms of surveillance are automated, using AI-enabled computer vision systems. This use of technology has the effect of further dehumanizing the inmates and removing prison workers from immediacy of the violence they are enacting.
The current campaigns eradicating Uyghur culture have started in 2016 at the latest, yet the global public has only learned about Xinjiang in the last couple of months, why do you think that is?
Uyghurs are a stateless people who have been colonized by an authoritarian state that is attempting to exert totalitarian control over their society. As a result, it is extremely difficult for Uyghurs to find spaces where they can explain what is happening to them. It also makes it difficult for independent researchers to gain access to accurate information as to what is happening on the ground. At the same time, China is now a major player on the world stage and because of this many nations and international institutions are fearful of criticizing China. The Chinese state has also mobilized a vast propaganda machine to obfuscate or gaslight the violent actions they are carrying out toward Uyghurs. These factors, taken together, are what has made it difficult for Uyghurs to access institutional support from international organizations.
You have been studying Xinjiang for many years, it has never gotten much attention up until recently and now you get to appear on the TV, give public talks and interviews like this one. How does it feel to come from a researcher of an obscure region to one of the most outspoken actors in the heated debate about Xinjiang under these circumstances?
Being placed in this position has made it clear that it is important to stand as an accomplice in Uyghur struggles. This means being willing to utilize a bit of my own privilege as a white, male, US citizen and scholar to advocate for Uyghur rights, amplify Uyghur stories, and stand up to the Chinese regime. It also means being willing to shape my research, teaching, and public advocacy around these issues.
My Uyghur friends, colleagues and acquaintances have sacrificed so much to tell their stories. They are the real carriers of knowledge about what is happening to them. Acting as an accomplice in their struggle, means that I need to speak as a listener. At this moment, Uyghurs need friends to listen to their stories and show them that their lives matter.
What can we, as the West, do about the situation?
Uyghurs in diaspora need friends and colleagues to support them and help them tell their stories. This may look like organizing interfaith events and human rights advocacy actions. It may mean working with Uyghur friends to translate the accounts of disappearances. It may mean making documentary films about life in the absence of loved-ones. Or it may simply mean inviting a Uyghur friend out for coffee and asking them if they are doing ok.
It also means advocating for Uyghurs to people in positions of state and institutional power. It means supporting Uyghur institutions. It also means speaking to your Han friends about what is happening to Uyghurs and asking them to speak to their parents and loved ones about what their state is doing.
This interview first appeared in Sinopsis, a joint project between the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University in Prague and a not-for-profit association AcaMedia. It is reprinted here with permission. Sinopsis thanks the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences for organizing a debate Managing the “Others”: Governance and Control in Contemporary Xinjiang, PRC, on October 8 2018. This event made the interview possible.