China's high-tech repression of Uyghurs is more sinister — and lucrative — than it seems, anthropologist says
Mass detention and surveillance key to fuelling profit in Xinjiang, says Darren Byler
*Originally published on Feb. 17, 2022.
When people started to disappear in China's northwest province of Xinjiang in 2014, then-PhD student Darren Byler was living there, with a rare, ground-level view of events that would eventually be labelled by some as a modern-day genocide.
The American anthropologist, who learned Chinese and Uyghur languages, witnessed a digital police state rise up around him, as mass detention and surveillance became a feature of life in Xinjiang. He spent years experiencing and gathering testimony on the impact.
"It's affected all of society," he told CBC's IDEAS.
Since those early days of Chinese President Xi Jinping's so-called "People's War on Terror," Human Rights Watch says at least one million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained in what China calls "re-education" or "vocational training" camps, in prisons or "pre-trial detention" facilities.
Survivors have recounted being tortured and raped in the camps, scruitinized by the gaze of cameras 24/7, and perhaps most crucially, forced to learn how to be Chinese and unlearn what it is to be Uyghur.
Countless of their children, says HRW, are forced to do the same in residential boarding schools.
China — currently in the Olympic spotlight and steering clear of such topics — routinely denies accusations, including from Canada's House of Commons, that its treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide.
China declared its campaign in 2014 after a series of violent attacks that it blamed on Uyghur extremists or separatists.
But what all Uyghurs are now facing is more sinister and lucrative than that, said Byler, now an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
It is, he said, a modern-day colonial project that operates at the nexus of state surveillance, mass detention and huge profits, and is enabled by high tech companies using ideas and technology first developed in the West.
Byler calls it "terror capitalism," a new frontier of global capitalism that is fuelled by the labelling of a people as dangerous, and then using their labour and most private personal data to generate wealth.
"When we're talking about a frontier of capitalism, you're talking about turning something that previously was not a commodity into a commodity," he said.
"So in this context, it's Uyghur social life, Uyghur behaviour, Uyghur digital histories that are being extracted and then quantified, measured and assessed and turned into this pattern data that is then made predictable."
The process Byler describes involves forced harvesting of people's data and then using it to improve predictive artificial intelligence technology. It also involves using the same population as test subjects for companies developing new tech. In other words, Xinjiang serves as an incubator for new tech.
Also critical is using those populations as unpaid or cheap labour in a resource-rich area considered a strategic corridor for China's economic ambitions.
"As I started to think more about the technology systems that were being built and understand the money that was flowing into this space, I started to think about it as more of a kind of security industrial complex that was funding technology development and research in the region," Byler told CBC's IDEAS.
Byler said research shows that tech companies working with Chinese state security tend to flourish and innovate, thanks largely to access to the huge troves of data collected by various levels of government.
David Yang, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, conducted such research using thousands of publicly available contracts specifically for facial recognition technology procured by mostly municipal governments all over China.
A contracted firm with access to government data "steadily increased its product innovation not just for the government, but also for the commercial market," for the next two years, said Yang.
Surveillance is a feature of everyday life in Xinjiang, so the personal data crucial to the profits is constantly being collected.
Central to the harvesting is a biometric ID system introduced there in 2017 requiring citizens to provide fingerprints, facial imagery, iris scans and DNA samples.
There are also turnstiles, checkpoints and cameras everywhere, and citizens are required to carry smartphones with specific apps.
"It's the technology that really pervades all moments of life," said Byler. "It's so intimate. There's no real outside to it."
It was in 2017 that Alim (not his real name) returned to Xinjiang from abroad to see his ailing mother. His arrest upon landing in China was the start of what he said was a descent into powerlessness — and the involuntary harvesting of his data.
Alim, now in his 30s, spoke to IDEAS on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals against remaining family in Xinjiang.
At the police station at home, as part of what he was told was a "health check," Alim had a DNA sample taken and "multiple pictures of my face from different sides … they made me read a passage from a book" to record his voice.
"Right before the voice recording, I had an anxiety attack, realizing that I'm possibly going to be detained for a very long time," Alim said.
The warrant for Alim's arrest said he was "under suspicion of disrupting the societal order."
My sheer identity, being a male Uyghur born after the 1980s, is enough for them to detain me.- Alim
In a crowded and airless pre-trial detention facility, he said he was forced to march and chant Communist Party slogans.
"I was just a student visiting home, but in the eyes of the Chinese government, my sheer identity, being a male Uyghur born after the 1980s, is enough for them to detain me."
Once released through the help of a relative, Alim found that his data haunted him wherever he went, setting off police alarms whenever he swiped his ID.
"I basically realized I was in a form of house arrest. I felt trapped."
While the Xinjiang example is extreme, it is still an extension of surveillance that has become the norm in the West, too, but where consent is at least implicitly given when we shop online or use social media.
And just as the artificial intelligence technology used for surveillance in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China has roots in the computer labs of Silicon Valley and Big Tech companies in the West, new Chinese iterations of such technology are also being exported back into the world, selling in countries like Zimbabwe and the Philippines, said Byler.
China may be the site of "some of the sharpest, most egregious manifestations of tech oppression, but it's by no means the only place in the world," said lawyer and anthropologist Petra Molnar, who is associate director with the Refugee Law Lab at York University in Toronto.
One such place is the modern international border, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, where Molnar is studying how surveillance technology affects migrant crossings.
Molnar said China's avid investment in artificial intelligence is creating an "arms race" that carries risks of "normalizing surveillance" in competing countries with stricter human rights laws.
"How is this going to then impact average individuals who are concerned about the growing role of Big Tech in our society?" she said from Athens.
"It seems like we've skipped a few steps in terms of the kind of conversations that we need to have as a public, as a society, and especially including the perspectives of communities and groups who are the ones experiencing this."
'A lot more nuance to this story'
Despite human rights concerns, other countries are loath to condemn China over Xinjiang because it is such an important part of the global economy, said Byler.
But he points out that he focuses on the economics of Xinjiang partly "to destabilize this easy binary of 'China is bad and the West is good.'"
China's "People's War on Terror" should be seen as an extension of the "war on terror" that originated in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks and is now a global phenomenon, said Byler.
"If we want to criticize China, we also have to criticize the 'war on terror.' We have to criticize or think carefully about capitalism and how it exploits people in multiple contexts," he said.
"There's actually a lot more nuance to the story."
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The West's complicity, he said, begins with "building these kinds of technologies without really thinking about the consequences."
Byler's observations on the ground form the basis of two books he's authored on the situation in Xinjiang — and of his policy suggestions to lawmakers, including Canadian MPs, about the repression in Xinjiang.
He's called on lawmakers to demand China's leaders immediately abolish the re-education detention system and release all detainees. He's also called for economic sanctions on Chinese authorities and technology companies that benefit from that process and for expediting asylum for Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims from China.
"I am a scholar at the end of the day," said the Vancouver-based anthropologist.
"Maybe I can nudge people to think in ways that advocate for change. It takes many, many voices and I'm just trying to do my best with what I know how."
Appearing in this episode:
Darren Byler is an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and the author of two books: In the Camps: China's High Tech Penal Colony and Terror Capitalism. Uyghur Dispossession, Masculinity in a Chinese city.
Alim is a Uyghur student living abroad.
This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed.