The August 9, 2021 issue of the literary journal Mekong Review featured a lead review of two new books on Xinjiang, one which I authored called In the Camps (Columbia Global Reports), scheduled to come out in October (pre-order it now!), and a recent publication titled The Perfect Police State (Public Affairs), by investigative journalist Geoffrey Cain. “In what is the largest mass detention of people from a religious or ethnic group since the Second World War,” writes Robert Templer. “The persecution of the Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and the Chinese Muslims known as Hui brings together four strands of contemporary life: the surveillance society and its facilitation by smartphones; the use of big data; global supply chains; and the idea that governments can take any actions against what they define as extremism. US policies after the attacks of 9/11, including secret prisons, disappearances and renditions without legal process, opened the door for governments like that in Beijing to apply the same policies without restraint.”
Templer’s review joins other early reviews of In the Camps. Scholar of contemporary China Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a frequent commentator in Foreign Affairs, notes, “Built around true personal stories, the book is a riveting—and terrifying—account of one of the worst human rights abuses being perpetrated in the world today.” He notes that the system extends beyond extralegal punishment for normative Islamic practice, to webs of surveillance that begin to overwhelm daily life of ethno-racialized minorities. Nick Holdstock, the author of two literary non-fiction accounts of the region, notes that the figures whose stories narrate the book “overlap and cohere into a raw portrait of systematic brutality and dehumanising routines.” New Yorker staff writer and editor of Columbia Global Reports, Nicholas Lemann notes that what the system takes away from Uyghurs and others is “their freedom of thought—the most intimate of human rights.”
Other intellectual heroes of mine, such as leading scholar of decolonial critique Shu-mei Shih, labor and technology scholar Meridith Whittaker, and ethicist Evan Selinger, also took on the book. Selinger noted that the “soul-crushing brutality” of the technology-enabled systems of control that have become so banal in Northwest China should not be forgotten. Instead they should be understood as part of what Whittaker refers to as “familiar settler colonial logics.” This, and the “automated racialization” of the systems, are why Shih argues the book should be “required reading for anyone interested in racial justice across the world.” Former Google research scientist and ethicist Jack Poulson added that what makes the book particularly prescient as an account of contemporary global capitalism is the way it “underlines the foundational role Silicon Valley companies” in the system.
As part of the Mekong Review‘s assessment of the book, I spoke with editor Abby Seiff about the uniqueness of the campaign in Northwest China, the process of chosing who to focus on in the book, and what the system signals regarding the future of surveillance.
You note throughout the book that abuse of ethnic minorities, an overzealous war on terror, the role played by powerful economic interests, and even the use of predictive policing is hardly unique to China. Are the horrors we see in Xinjiang, then, simply a matter of scale? Or is there a fundamental difference in China’s approach?
What is happening in Xinjiang borrows basic technologies and counter-terrorism strategy from other places. Deeply problematic ‘countering violent extremism’ or CVE programs in North America and Europe ostensibly are focused on preventing people, particularly Muslims, from being radicalised by placing them on watchlists and in some cases detaining them. And the use of face recognition and dataveillance is something that civil rights advocates decry in many places.
What is different in China is the scale and more specific tactics that are used. These aspects are interrelated. The Chinese government has spent around $100 billion dollars to build the systems of the Muslim re-education campaign, which is remarkable, but as part of this system they have also hired around 90,000 low level government contractors to maintain the system. These workers are paid only around $300-400 a month. They have also mobilised 1.1 million mostly Han ‘volunteers’ to monitor the families of detainees and others on watchlists. This mass mobilisation of a ‘people’s war’ against terrorism is unique to China’s authoritarian context and it’s history of mass campaigns. The legal and carceral systems likewise build on older camp and re-education systems for ‘untrustworthy’ populations that were instituted during the Maoist period.
Many of the survivors you feature in your book are urban, secular, educated, and Chinese-speaking. And some, such as a police contractor and a teacher, are both victims and perpetrators. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
I chose the figures I did in the book in part because they were in safe places and able to speak to me. In order to escape the region, it is very beneficial to have economic mobility and knowledge of Chinese. However, among the Kazakh former detainees I interviewed, significant numbers of them were also rural herders with very limited knowledge of Chinese. Adilbek, one of the former detainees who speaks from that position in the book, evoked such powerful images of social death and dehumanisation—of preparing a sheep for slaughter and the way shepherds strike their sheep—that it was hard not to shed a few tears with him. In order to convey a sense of the inarticulable yet looming presence of the system, it was important to choose figures who could narrate it from different class, gender, ethnic, political and geographic positions. Rather than pointing to the easier targets of central leaders, I also wanted to show how a ‘swarm of functionaries,’ as Primo Levi might refer to them, were pulled into the system as low-level perpetrators.
Given the increasing popularity of this type of biometric surveillance across the globe, do you see the situation in Xinjiang as a harbinger for other nations?
The possibility of this is certainly something that should trouble anyone with an interest in racial justice and decolonisation. I’m particularly concerned about the development of such systems in places like Hong Kong, Kashmir and Palestine. However, it is also important to be clear that implementing a system like the one in Xinjiang takes a great deal of money, an army of low-level technicians and an authoritarian government with the political will to colonise an entire population of people without regard for international law. Without those elements in place, it will be difficult for other nations to target minorities in quite the same way.
To pre-order the book please please follow this link to Columbia Global Reports.