When Canada’s House of Commons denounced the Chinese Communist regime as guilty of genocide, in February 2021, it became the first legislature anywhere to do so. But others are paying close attention to China and its ruling party. Indeed, as the world’s finest athletes gather in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, many countries are on a journey of discovery — about that party’s actions and the great moral and political challenges they present.
One Canadian scholar, Darren Byler, is helping to guide that journey, with two recent titles that make an outstanding contribution to both public awareness and critical scholarship. The books cover much the same ground for two different audiences: while In the Camps is quite short and intended for the general reader, Terror Capitalism is a longer work, richer in theory and technical terms.
Their publication roughly coincides with two other major landmarks in the world’s developing reaction to what’s unfolding in Xinjiang. In London, the independent Uyghur Tribunal held hearings throughout 2021 and concluded, on December 9, that China has indeed committed genocide, as well as other crimes against humanity, including torture and rape by agents of the state in the course of duty. And in Washington, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was signed into law on December 23, by the president, Joe Biden. It will prohibit the domestic sale of goods produced in whole or in part by forced labour in Xinjiang.
Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, devoted much of his time between 2011 and 2020 to ethnographic research in Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, and, significantly, Seattle. With In the Camps, he presents in vivid detail the suffering imposed on those who live in what has become, essentially, a high-tech penal colony. A skilled interviewer and observer — steeped in the language, culture, and history of Xinjiang, a landlocked region larger than Alaska in northwest China — he shows through individual lives the effects of the “People’s War on Terror” that the Communist regime is waging on “the entire Muslim population of 15 million.” He points out that the incarceration of a million or more constitutes the largest imprisonment of a religious minority since the Second World War, and he alleges that by 2017, the ruling party had instituted “a program of preventing Uyghurs from being Muslim and, to a certain extent, from being Uyghur.”
Byler presents a wealth of evidence to show that the Xinjiang camp system is of a scale and degree of cruelty beyond all contemporary parallels. His witnesses related how an entire people was being dehumanized through propaganda and policy and how this treatment was reflected in the camps. Former detainees recalled how they were treated like animals, stripped of their language, their faith, even their names, and routinely subjected to beatings, torture, and rape. In recounting the experience of an imprisoned Kazakh truck driver, Byler writes, “The survivors were people who had isolated themselves from feeling anything. They betrayed each other and themselves in an effort to survive.”
Interviewees also spoke to a difference from previous internment systems: the technologies of “totalizing power relations” employed in today’s camps — including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and digital surveillance — are being deployed outside them as well, in factories run like prisons and on the streets, where Uyghurs are routinely corralled in “digital enclosures” and reminded of their subject status by relentless checks on their identity, their movements, and their activities. These technologies, Byler writes, “bring a ferocious and desperate loneliness into everyday life, tearing apart communities, turning children against their parents.”
The regime’s objectives are not only political — to defend its rule against what it sees as alarming dissent and difference — but also economic. A whole people deemed unworthy of legal protection is being turned into an underclass to serve the country’s industrial production, through what Byler terms, in his other book, “terror capitalism,” which he describes as “a distinct configuration of state capital, techno-political surveillance, and unfree labor.”
The release of two complementary works on the same subject speaks to the needs of our time. Until very recently, Xinjiang was almost entirely unknown outside a narrow field of specialists. That changed in spectacular fashion when, in November 2019, the New York Times published the Xinjiang Papers and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the China Cables, both based on caches of classified documents leaked from within the party-state. Those documents put beyond doubt the nature of the regime’s policy and the official existence of the huge camp network. They also demonstrated that the policies pursued in recent years build upon speeches by and written instructions from the Communist Party’s general secretary, Xi Jinping, as well as other senior central government leaders in 2014.
Though a concise volume, In the Camps adds to our broader understanding of what has happened. Despite its title, the book shows how the regime’s strategy is affecting life beyond the camps. In each chapter, Byler presents one or two Uyghurs, initially using a tight focus that illustrates their specific experiences with some aspect of official policy. He then pulls back to describe that policy with considerable depth. This is an astute approach, well suited for engaging the hearts and minds of his audience.
Byler’s witnesses shared their stories, and often those of their fellow prisoners, in intimate detail. We feel close to a prisoner as he is crowded into a cell of 215 square feet with forty others, so tightly packed that it is not possible for all of them to lie on the concrete floor at once. We wince as a guard shocks a woman in the head with an electric baton. We can hear another guard shout “Sing again!” to the prisoners who are obliged to praise Xi Jinping and the Communist Party before they are fed their miserable meal of a single bun and watery soup. We grieve with the mother whose daughters, aged one and nine, are taken to an orphanage as she is imprisoned. We experience the shock of her cellmates, who are woken in the night by the sound of her body hitting the floor when she commits suicide by jumping headfirst from her third-level bunk.
“They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, sweat, and fear that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards,” Byler writes of those he interviewed. “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.”
As Byler widens his focus, we learn how others have been detained on the flimsiest of pretexts and classified as “pre-criminals,” and how the state media represents those deemed “extremists” as “venomous snakes and disease-carrying insects” (usually for following traditional practices, not for any evidence of criminal action or intent). We see that a list of seventy-five activities has been drawn up and incorporated into algorithms that determine who is a “religious extremist” and should therefore be arrested. We understand that many of those imprisoned are never told why, and even those who arrest them admit they do not know.
In the Camps begins with the story of Vera Zhou, a Muslim woman with a Han father, who was on course to becoming an urban planner at a top-ranked university in the United States, after attending high school near Portland, Oregon. Thinking the war on terror had nothing to do with her, she flew home to China for a long weekend with her Han boyfriend. She was imprisoned for the “cyber-crime” of using a VPN to access “illegal websites,” which included her Gmail account. The book ends on quite a different note, with the tale of Sun Jian, who returned to China from Seattle after thirteen years working for Microsoft. He soon joined the facial-recognition company Megvii, which was applying its deep-learning systems to the security operations that help safeguard the totalitarian state. Sun Jian was not alone in his contribution to the cause; Byler cites an executive vice-president with the software company Oracle, who explains that nearly all major U.S. tech firms have been entangled in the development of Chinese surveillance systems.
While Byler’s pioneering work vividly conveys the suffering that individuals experience under the regime’s policies in Xinjiang, we can turn elsewhere for more structured accounts. Many of them appear in the valuable annotated bibliography at the end of In the Camps. These include Sean Roberts’s The War on the Uyghurs, from 2020, which Byler commends for providing a macro view of the systems described in his own book; and James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, from 2021, which he describes as “the most authoritative and up-to-date history of the region.” (Roberts, in particular, is an excellent complement to Byler.)
There are also invaluable resources online, including extremely important testimony and documentation compiled by Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and by the Uyghur Tribunal, at which Zenz appeared as an expert witness. Together, these materials build on what we first read about in November 2019 and corroborate the accounts collected by Byler. They again show how Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang is linked to demands made by Xi and other central government figures eight years ago, and how this framework has led to a range of policies: mass internments in “re‑education camps,” which are, in fact, run as prisons; poverty alleviation through coercive labour transfers; “optimizing” the distribution of ethnicities by increasing Han population shares in the region, through such methods as forced transfers and compulsory sterilization; criminalizing customary religious practices; forcing hundreds of thousands of Han officials to “become family” with ethnic populations, which has led to domestic abuse, including sexual assault; and implementing Chinese-language education in centralized boarding schools.
From such resources, we now know that Xi called “religious extremism” a “poison” in 2014. He also said Xinjiang was stricken with a “heart sickness” that could be cured only by “heart medicine.” Re‑education was to be the free treatment for “sick thinking.” Because, according to Xi, if the “powerful psychedelic drug” of “extremist thought” was not eradicated, acts of terror would “multiply like cancer cells.”
Implementation of these policies was scaled up and accelerated in 2016 and 2017. It was further intensified in 2018 with a call to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections”— in other words, cultural extinction of the Uyghurs. Satellite imagery has shown how vigorously the call was acted upon by identifying the approximately 65 percent of mosques in the region that have been destroyed or damaged. “The manifestation of these policies continued to evolve,” the Uyghur Tribunal ultimately concluded. “It encompassed every facet of life for Uyghurs.”
On all the evidence laid before it last year, the tribunal was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt” that the People’s Republic of China has committed multiple crimes against humanity and that, through “measures to prevent births intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” it has also committed genocide.
Why is a party that is in control of 1.4 billion people waging war on a community of 13 million? Not because of terrorism, which is only a pretext. Not because of attitudes of cultural and racial superiority over Uyghurs; while such attitudes are widely found among Han Chinese, the Uyghur minority is so much smaller that it constitutes no risk to the majority. No, the true cause is to be found in the totalitarian nature of the regime, which sees an existential threat in both religious and political dissent, both of which challenge the doctrine of the party as the ultimate authority in the universe.
As the world once again turns its attention to Beijing, we might ask ourselves what we are to do about China after the Olympic flame is snuffed on February 20. Thankfully, Ottawa and a Canadian scholar are together showing leadership in the vital task of arousing and informing the public as we grapple with a great moral and political challenge.