Settler Colonialism Meets the War on Terror: The Enclosure of China’s Uyghurs

November 8, 2021   •   By Aidan Forth

In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony

Darren Byler

Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City

Darren Byler

CHINA’S DETENTION OF as many as 1.5 million Uyghurs, members of a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group, constitutes the largest internment of a religious minority since World War II. As skyscrapers rise above the arid steppes and oasis towns of Xinjiang, monuments to China’s modern prosperity, a dispossessed ethnic and religious underclass faces a density of surveillance that eclipses even the secret police of communist East Germany. Those deemed “suspect” are relegated to the 21st century’s largest system of reeducation camps, which extend across a vast territory more than twice the size of Texas. Here they enter what the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi described as the “gray zone,” where victims are stripped of their dignity and humanity, forced to walk like dogs, eat pork, and recite odes to the Chinese Communist Party’s leader Xi Jinping. Such is the subject of two remarkable books by Darren Byler, a talented anthropologist who has conducted years of challenging and courageous ethnographic research in China’s forbidding far Northwest. Terror Capitalism, a compelling though sometimes jargon-laden treatise, offers an important contribution for specialists and graduate students. In the Camps, meanwhile, is short, highly readable, and will appeal to anyone interested in violence and social justice. Together, Byler’s books bear witness, in moving and elegant fashion, to cultural genocide and economic exploitation; to the menacing capacities of Big Data and biotech; and above all, to the lives of those who have disappeared. Moreover, they are ominous sirens. Though symbols of Chinese totalitarianism, Uyghur camps intersect, in troubling ways, with the colonial histories, capitalist economies, and security practices of the Anglo-American West.

In 2013, a group of Uyghur terror suspects was released from Guantanamo Bay. Detained without evidence or trial, and eventually exonerated by US courts, they were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One year later, prompted by the US’s limitless “War on Terror,” and following a mass stabbing at a train station in the city of Kunming — “China’s 9/11,” as some commentators immediately dubbed it — Xi Jinping declared the “People’s War on Terror.” In doing so, he subjected the Uyghur homeland to a devastating military counterinsurgency. Imagining its Central Asian hinterland to be a den of terrorists-in-hiding, and inspired by global specters of the dangerous and fanatical Muslim, Chinese officials have methodically criminalized quotidian aspects of Uyghur life, even as realistic prospects of armed insurgency by Uyghur separatists dwindle. Suspect activities like growing beards or wearing veils, eating halal meat, or posting Quranic verses to WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform that combines elements of Facebook and WhatsApp, are now treated as markers of violent extremism. Localized protests, like the 2009 Ürümqi riot, which responded to the lynching of two Muslim workers accused of raping a Han woman — a sexual and racial trope with many parallels in the American South — became evidence of a global Islamist conspiracy. Following official instructions to “round up those who should be rounded up,” intelligence agents now classify Uyghur “pre-criminals” as “trustworthy, average or untrustworthy.” The latter are detained in reeducation camps, where sleep deprivation, and sometimes even torture (the “tiger chair” replaces the waterboarding of Guantanamo) extract further intelligence.

Meanwhile, intensive reeducation sessions, where inmates learn Mandarin, sing patriotic songs, and recite Party slogans, are China’s version of what the American General David Petraeus referred to as “winning hearts and minds.” The technology is brand new. Advanced algorithms first developed in Silicon Valley to monitor the purchasing behavior of American consumers now scrutinize Uyghur lives, along with geospatial data collected from smartphones and a province-wide matrix of high-definition cameras linked to facial recognition software. Though developed by Chinese companies, this technology, Byler points out, is similar to programs like Clearview AI, which is used by American police forces. Yet as tools of military counterinsurgency and intelligence gathering — camps themselves are a crude form of “information technology” — the detention of China’s Uyghurs can be slotted into a longer history of civilian concentration, from Boer guerrillas and their families in South Africa (1899–1902) to anti-colonial insurgents in Algeria (1954–’62), and Mau Mau rebels in colonial Kenya (1952–’60), the latter of whom were interned in what the historian Caroline Elkins, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, calls Britain’s imperial “gulag.” Like suspect Uyghurs, Kenya’s Kikuyu population was sorted, according to peculiarly racialized categories of “white, grey, and black” in order to make them legible, and thus amenable to control by an imperial state. (Interested readers might also consult Laleh Khalili’s Time in the Shadows and my own Barbed-Wire Imperialism for further information on the use of mass confinement as a counterinsurgency tactic.)

Yet while state security and the Global War on Terror are proximate causes of Uyghur dispossession, “broader material and colonial processes” are also at play. Discourses of terrorism have supercharged the assault on Chinese Muslims, but in Xinjiang, a potent combination of settler colonialism and capitalist accumulation are also to blame, Byler maintains. Just as modern capitalism transformed the United States and Australia from desolate sites of penal servitude to lands of opportunity, Han settlers now see China’s far Northwest, once a fearful space of banishment, as a desirable destination — a point made evident by Tom Cliff’s recent book. The gateway to a “new silk road,” with its connections across the Eurasian landmass, Xinjiang’s open spaces and social mobility allow peasants and factory workers, imbued with optimism and an empowering pioneer ethos, to escape the crowded confines and fixed hierarchies of metropolitan Shenzhen and Shanghai. As China has transitioned from Mao-era communism to the state capitalism of Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, public investment and private corporations are now developing the western frontier as an exemplary site of China’s renewed economic might. High-yielding agricultural plantations, along with oil, gas, and, above all, cotton — the Uyghur homeland accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s supply — are now driving China’s economy, supplying cash crops (like tomatoes) for export as well as energy and raw materials for the textile factories and heavy industries of the country’s East.

As Han settlers occupy the frontier, they expropriate ancestral lands, desecrate graves and cultural sites, and annihilate indigenous economies and lifestyles. In a country that once prized itself as a bastion against Western imperialism, Uyghur men have been racialized as backward, primitive others. The “only positive images of Uyghurs that were staged by local authorities for public consumption,” Byler observes, “were those of happy, dancing, exotic others performing their permitted difference for the benefit of tourists.” Outside the cultural heritage industry, however, skin color, eye shape, and nose structure signify a dangerous ethnic profile. Cesare Lombroso, the 19th-century criminologist who identified the genetic features of the “born criminal,” has been reimagined on the Xinjiang plateau. Though their plight is largely invisible to Han settlers, who do “not respect the Native knowledge and values of the Muslims,” and who take for granted the “free land” available to them, Uyghur men are highly visible to state security. Like black and indigenous men in America, they are incarcerated at six times the national rate, while school-aged children are separated from their families and placed in residential boarding schools, where they are forbidden to speak their native language or practice Islam. As if to exemplify similarities with North America, the Chinese government recently, and cynically, responded to international condemnation of Uyghur reeducation camps by calling for a UN investigation into Canadian residential schools (a historical rather than contemporary injustice the Canadian government has publicly recognized and condemned).

Settler colonialism, the anthropologist Patrick Wolfe contends in a seminal article, is premised on the “elimination of the natives.” Just as the forces of capitalism and enclosure alienated 18th-century European peasants from their land, Uyghur farmers and subsistence herders are encircled by Han settlers who, attracted by profit-making enterprises, now constitute nearly 90 percent of Xinjiang’s urban population. Locked into an essentially colonial relationship, meanwhile, Uyghurs also share the plight of indigenous populations concentrated on reservations. Like black South Africans confined to “Bantustans” or Palestinians displaced from their homes by Israeli settlements, residents of Ürümqi’s remaining informal settlements (like Emir, “the last sheep farmer in Ürümqi” and subject of Byler’s most poignant case study) face losing struggles to retain their property and livelihoods. Ethnic chauvinism combined with extensive surveillance, what Byler calls “digital enclosure,” has systematically criminalized Uyghur life. Those without documents, those who resist periodic urban sweeps, and those suspected of “abnormal behavior” — Chinese authorities list 75 potential offenses, ranging from watching Turkish television and visiting relatives in Kazakhstan to protesting oil pipelines transiting ancestral lands — soon disappear into the camps. More menacing analogies also prevail. The discursive association of Uyghurs with tumors, rats, and parasites, for example, echoes antisemitic tropes found in Third Reich propaganda, and that of other Western countries.

The Chinese state justifies its measures by celebrating the “liberation” of Uyghurs from their “native way of life” — rhetoric familiar to any historian of Western imperialism. Yet the forced sterilization of Muslim women and the separation of families speak to the hypocrisy of China’s “civilizing mission.” So far, however, cultural genocide rather than physical extermination has framed the campaign. Just as Lieutenant Pratt, director of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School aspired, in 1887, to “kill the Indian but save the man,” China hopes to pacify would-be insurgents by transforming them into a docile, Sinicized labor force. While their thoughts and behaviors are closely policed, Uyghur bodies retain instrumental value. (In contrast, one notes, to American digital surveillance and corporate propaganda, which aims to construct pliant consumers, the ideal Chinese subject is the proletarian worker.) To this end, Uyghur reeducation camps are outposts within a larger prison-industrial complex that leases unfree labor to private factories and plantations. When “Turkic Muslim farmers” arrived at the factory, one official boasted, they “took off their grass shoes,” code for primitive exoticism, “and became industrial workers.” Toiling in sweatshops, unpaid Uyghur workers, both former and current detainees, are subjected to factory discipline reminiscent of the “mitigated prisons” Karl Marx described in 19th-century Britain — or, indeed, of contemporary penitentiaries in the United States, which likewise extract unfree labor from racialized inmates, who are tasked with producing everything from Idaho potatoes to Victoria’s Secret lingerie. The same is true of cotton. Just as Mississippi plantations provided raw material for Manchester’s industrialization, the cotton fields of the Uyghur homeland stand behind the textile factories of Shenzhen. Working in them “was like slavery,” one survivor maintains.

Byler’s provocative argument locates Uyghur camps within a broader global spectrum of colonial policing and unfree labor. At the same time, however, more attention to political culture and to China’s long carceral history might better explain why the mass detention of Chinese Muslims represents a limit case, an extremity of cruelty and abuse within a larger history of racial and economic domination. Much has changed since China’s Communist Revolution — state capitalism and the profit motive have “opened the west” in a way Mao Zedong’s program to cultivate Xinjiang (using the labor of political prisoners) never could. Yet basic structures of authoritarian governance and a cultural and legal emphasis on group conformity over individual expression have permitted Chinese officials to detain suspects more blatantly and unapologetically than their Western counterparts (unlike Chinese camps, Guantanamo Bay is on foreign soil in order to bypass constitutional protections). And while race and religion have emerged as new markers of suspicion in contemporary China, the anti-Uyghur campaign revives earlier mobilizations against perceived enemies of the state. Islamic terrorists are, to an extent, the new “counterrevolutionary rightists.” Chinese Muslims are depicted as vermin and poisonous weeds, much like suspected counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution. And while Maoist apparatchiks targeted a sweeping array of deviant behavior, from reading foreign novels to wearing eyeglasses, as signs of capitalist conspiracy, almost any aspect of Uyghur life, from wearing a beard to reading the Qur’an, is now evidence of latent insurgent tendencies. Frontier capitalism may have replaced the collective farm, but does China’s revolutionary plot mentality remain?

Finally, while new digital technologies have generated unprecedented systems of surveillance and enclosure, Uyghur reeducation camps are only the latest installation in a longer history of mass detention. Starting in the 1950s and lasting into the 21st century, China has operated an expansive system of “reform through labor” (laogai) and “re-education through labor” (liaojiao) camps for convicted criminals and political prisoners. Given his mastery of political theory and extensive ethnographic research, it is surprising that Byler does not mention these institutions or engage with the growing scholarship on Chinese prisons — from studies by historians like Frank Dikötter and Klaus Mühlhahn to Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu’s more literary minded Great Wall of Confinement — for the internal management of Uyghur camps cannot be understood without them. Accounts by the novelist and poet Zhang Xianliang and others, detained as political prisoners under Mao, reveal a familiar regime of arrest quotas, written confessions, political informers, ideological education, and forced labor (laogai products, like those from Uyghur camps, have recently been exported to foreign markets). Even the prison fare, ubiquitous steamed buns, recalls the diet of laogai inmates. Above all, an abiding emphasis on thought reform and the internalization of cultural and political norms has endured from the camps of Communist (and also Nationalist) China. Though Byler tells a universal story of capitalist and settler colonial exploitation, one that gives eloquent voice to the detained and dispossessed, attention to political history might uncover a more specifically “Chinese way” of organizing camps, one with roots in former times. And while Byler’s engagement with Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, or with theorists like Fanon and Foucault, highlights the Uyghurs’ despair and desperation, China has its own victims of mid-20th-century ideological terror, its own Primo Levis, who offer vernacular voices of comparative suffering.

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Aidan Forth is an associate professor of History at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. His first book, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876–1902, won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize from the Canadian Historical Association and the Stansky Book Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies.

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Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that facial recognition software developed by the company Clearview AI was being used in China. This statement was not true, and was made in error.