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

Video and Transcript


On October 13, Darren Byler joined ChinaFile’s Susan Jakes and Jessica Batke to discuss his new book, In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony.

A little more than four years ago, reports from China first began to emerge of a large-scale program of involuntary “reeducation” for Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the western region of Xinjiang. As testimony from detainees trickled out, and research on government procurement and satellite images began to be published, evidence mounted to show that despite denials from Beijing, China’s government was incarcerating some one million people in a network of detention facilities across Xinjiang, while subjecting millions of others in the region to severe religious and cultural repression and an unprecedented level of technologically enhanced surveillance.

In the Camps draws on a decade of research on the region, examining thousands of government documents and many hours of interviews with both detainees and camp workers. Their stories describe a surveillance that overwhelms the lives of Xinjiang’s residents, and push Byler to examine how technological tools are being adapted to create forms of intrusive and often oppressive control of vulnerable people around the world.

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Susan Jakes: Darren, the subject of your book is not only the network of detention facilities, or camps, across Xinjiang, where beginning around 2017 more than a million Uyghurs and members of other minority groups have been forcibly detained in appallingly inhumane conditions, but also the broader systems of control that make the whole region into a kind of open-air prison. Given how difficult it is to grasp the extremity of what’s taking place in Xinjiang, one of the things that makes your book so powerful is the way it weaves together the factual and theoretical underpinnings of this larger system with the stories of individual people—ex-detainees and some of the people who detained them who are now outside of China and who have spoken to you in great detail about what they went through. I’d like to focus on these individual stories, but first maybe just sketch out for us: How and why did this campaign begin? So that we have our bearings a bit.

Darren Byler: Sure. Well, thank you so much for hosting me here, it’s a real honor. This book has been a long process. I started 10 years ago doing research in this region, and the last several years really thinking about this book and how to present it. The origins of what’s happened to the people that were detained, you have to go back to around 2014, which is when the “People’s War on Terror” was declared. That was in response to violent incidents that happened in the Uyghur region but in other parts of China as well. Incidents where Uyghur civilians attacked Han civilians in public spaces, like a train station in Kunming and Tiananmen Square, the center of political power in China. Those incidents really I think set off a number of alarms across the country, both among the general public and the Party elite. And that’s when they really began this campaign of assessing the population, and initially detaining community leaders, people who have been teach Islam in Uyghur villages. There was a lot of thinking that if people are religious in their practice, that they’re practicing in a way that’s public and that is really conforming to normative forms of Islam in other places, where they’re praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, those sorts of things, that that could lead to terrorism. They call that kind of behavior “extremism.” So, it was this conflation between religious behavior and violent action that led eventually to this mass internment of so many people. But it took some time for them to really be able to assess who is really doing this “extremist” stuff—who is fasting, who is praying five times a day or praying in their own homes, which is also according to these new regulations something that’s now forbidden. And the way that they did that assessment was through a lot of human intelligence, they hired lots of people, but they also developed new technological assessment tools that could go through people’s digital history and see what they’d been doing online, what they’d been doing on social media, and where they had been traveling, what their social network looked like, if they had relatives living abroad in places like Turkey or Egypt. And so it took some time for them to really turn up the pressure and then actually begin to detain people at the level of the population. That didn’t really arrive until 2017. When I was starting thinking about this and thinking about the People’s War on Terror, I didn’t anticipate that there would be mass detentions at this scale—and they might not have either, they might not have known that they would actually detect so many people that were, according to these new counterterrorism laws which were implemented—so many people should be detained as having committed terrorism and extremism crimes that are not serious but could lead to something more. The “not serious” is actually how they describe these crimes.

Jakes: The phenomenon of counterterrorism has a pretty checkered history, not only in China but also around the world and right here in the U.S. Jessica, you have also been following events in Xinjiang quite closely both during your years in government and in the years since you’ve come to ChinaFile. How do you understand how the Chinese leadership’s conception of and practice of counterterrorism differs from that of other countries?

Jessica Batke: That’s a really good question, and I should preface by saying I’m not an expert in counterterrorism elsewhere, so I don’t want anything I say to be construed as making counterterrorism here sound too sunny or fair, because I don’t necessarily think that’s true. But I think one of the key things is what Darren mentioned, which is this idea of “not serious” activities, activities which are very normal parts of everyday practice, being conflated with “pre-crime,” as I think Darren calls it in his book, or “pre-terrorism.” And that obviously can happen elsewhere, as well, but it is so, in this case, tied to specific ethnicities of people, and to people who have been in this place, this is their homeland where this culture has developed, and so there is a government which has come in and said, I know you’ve been doing this for a really long time but now we’ve decided that this is terrorism. Again, I don’t want to say that that’s never happened anywhere else, but just from my rough understanding of what’s going on in the U.S. that strikes me as slightly different.

Jakes: Darren, anything you want to add to that? What about the scale?

Darren: Yeah, so there are a couple things. What Jessica’s pointing out is that ethnicity is an important variable in this system, because there are other Muslims in China who were not targeted in the same way. Uyghurs, and maybe to some extent Kazakhs, were seen as less assimilated, and that really has to do with their ethnicity, their racial difference, and also their language practice, they speak Kazakh or Uyghur as their first language and they have attachments to the lands in which they live as their ancestral homelands. All of that means that they’re seen as more of a threat to social stability, to the state. The other thing, like you mentioned, is the scale is quite different. So in the U.S. and Europe, there are programs called “countering violent extremism” or “Prevent” in the U.K. which is meant to stop people from being radicalized, and this really sort of rose to the fore in the 2010s and in response to things like the Islamist State, where people wanted to prevent young Muslims from being radicalized, and so they mobilized Imams and other community leaders, and also school teachers and others to report on suspicious activities that they saw in the Muslim community.

The policing theory literature that I’ve read from China says that they think that they’re doing something similar, that they’re preventing Uyghurs from being radicalized by sort of “nipping it in the bud,” that’s the term that they use. The problems are that they’re using these technology tools that have been developed not from within the community but by computer scientists, by people that are looking for markers and are very broad. And in addition, the human technicians, the people that are employing these systems, at least in positions of power, are not from the community, and so I don’t really think they understand what they’re looking at in terms of what is actually radical or not. So, it’s these factors combined—the ethnic difference, language difference, not really understanding what you’re looking at and then projecting onto this entire population, that makes the scale so much larger. And really produces something that’s more about transforming the entire population rather than targeting people that we think are suspicious.

Jakes: One phrase that you use a lot in that context of this very broad targeting, and that appears often in the book and I think is particularly hard to grasp in the abstract is the term “digital enclosure.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that term and maybe in the context of one of the central figures in the book, a young University of Washington student who you came to know and whose story you tell.

Byler: Sure. The term “digital enclosure” is not my own, it comes from a communications scholar named Mark Andrejevic, and what he’s talking about is the way all of us are in digital enclosures at this point. If we own a smartphone, or even if we don’t, when we move through the world we’re being tracked in some ways. Most of this is by technology platforms like Facebook or whatever apps you have on your phone. Or your Internet provider. Or it’s by the state as you travel through space, like your car will be detected and so on. So in that sense, social behavior itself has been captured and is enclosed. The enclosure that Mark Andrejevic is talking about is the way that things that previously were outside of the market, that were outside of governance in some ways, the commons of our lives, the private spaces of our lives, our social relations, those things have now become data that can be fed into technology systems and government systems. In Xinjiang, that is amplified to an extreme degree. They’re using social media data, they’re collecting GPS tracking information as people move through space on their phones, in their cars, all of that. But they’ve also now built out a grid network of check-points throughout the entire region, and so as people move through space, they encounter these check-points. Vera Zhou is a University of Washington student who I’ve spent a lot of time with, with her and her mother over the last several years. I was at the University of Washington teaching when she was taken. What she told me after she was able to come back is that there were moments after she was released from the camp and was on probation sort of under house arrest, as she would walk through space she would encounter police officers who would pull her to the side and take her into a surveillance hub and say you’ve been flagged by the system and she would see her face on the screen with a square around it and there was an indication that she wasn’t—so there’s green squares and there’s orange squares and there’s red squares, it depends a bit on which system is being used, but in this case she had an orange square I think around her face that indicated that she was someone who was on a watch list and so she wasn’t supposed to be in the area where she was, it was outside of the grid that was allotted to her. So in that sense, the digital enclosure now begins to work as a kind of controlling device that prevents people from moving through space, but only certain people. And so there’s a sort of digital apartheid system where some people who are on the green list are able to walk freely, whereas the people on these watchlists are pulled to the side. This is happening just through facial recognition. Then of course there’s these hard checkpoints where you have your face scanned and your ID scanned and all that. And Vera, because she’s Hui and can pass as Han, would sometimes just go through the back gate or the green lane of the check point and pretend to be Han rather than knowing that she’s Muslim and should have her ID checked. That worked sometimes but not always, and so over time she just started to say “I should stay home, I shouldn’t connect with anyone on WeChat or in other ways because they could be implicated through their association with me,” and so it really began to constrain her social relations. She said that the main thing she did in terms of her digital self was just re-tweet or re-post the things that her probation officers, the person who works in the Civil Affairs Ministry who was assigned to her, what that person posted on their WeChat wall, she just amplified it to show that she was loyal and that she was committed to her rehabilitation and her transformation through this reeducation regime.

Jakes: One of the parts of the book that was so striking was the story of what happened to her before the period that you’re talking about, when she was detained and brought to a reeducation facility. And one of the things that struck me so forcefully when I was reading the book is just how brutally cruel, psychologically and physically violent the reeducation centers were from the descriptions of the former detainees you spoke to. Several of them described unremitting forms of physical torture directed at people who had been locked up for nothing more than using a VPN or watching a Turkish television show or traveling abroad and then found themselves packed into tiny cells with dozens of other people, in some cases no toilets just open buckets of sewage, the lights are on all the time, they’re made to watch one another as they sleep, even as the guards are watching them through surveillance cameras in their cells. They describe not being able to move for long stretches of time to the point where they begin to experience serious medical consequences, intestinal prolapse, just horrific bodily harm. They’re rarely allowed to shower, women are drugged to stop them from menstruating, people are beaten for moving, for whispering to one another, for crying. They’re severely under-nourished, in some cases they’re actively tortured using machines designed for that torture and one of your sources describes hearing the sounds of that as she was taking her break from teaching at one of these centers every day. It’s just so punitive, and yet Chinese leaders both internally and externally describe what’s taking place as a form of deradicalization. As you said, they often speak of it using the language of public health: They’re curing or immunizing against a diseased ideology. And I just realized I really struggle to understand how these two pieces fit together. Why not either let the people leave the country, or on the flip side if they’re seen as so dangerous and so criminal as to merit this kind of abuse, why not just the punishment, why also the education? How do you understand that?

Byler: One of the things that Qelbinur, the camp worker that you mentioned, what she’s talking about is that way that people that were in management of the camp told her that like “this is not a hotel, this is a camp,” that they were very clear that there should be overcrowding, that people should be in physical discomfort and pain, that was part of the goal of sort of breaking their spirit, forcing them to submit. In some ways, I think maybe one from a central management level or position, they maybe were surprised at how many people they detained initially. And most people were held initially in sort of warehouses and government offices that were not designed to hold people at all, which is why there’s buckets being used as toilets, and showers are just once a week or once a month or what have you. Over time, I think conditions did get somewhat better in terms of sanitation and things like that. Another element of this, and we hear this in relation to sexual violence in some camps, is that some things were being done off camera, which means that the local guards and management that are in the camp are doing things to these detainees that aren’t mandated. If they’re doing it off camera there’s a reason for that. Some of it might have been because they were in some cases taking money it seems from visitors that wanted to have sex with these women in the camp. But in other cases they also talk about trying to hide the bruising by hitting them in the head because the bruises won’t show through their hair. And that indicates that there is some disconnect between the local brutality inside a camp and management higher up the chain. At the same time, a camp itself is outside the law, it’s outside of legal control, and so it rests instead on the moral authority of the people that are running the camp, their moral authority and capacity, their moral compass. And when people have absolute power in that kind of system, things often tend in this direction I think. And there are incentives, I think, to show your cruelty, especially for Uyghur and Kazakh guards because they need to show how loyal they are.

Batke: I agree with all of that. I think it’s also important to think about what are the long-term goals of this campaign, and part of that is to stop generational cultural transmission, to get people to control their own behavior, or maybe even for younger people to not even think in the “extremist” ways that previous generations had. And the goal is not necessarily to keep everyone locked up forever, it is to instill absolute fear and loyalty so that people will behave themselves, and this is abetted by the fact that they never know when they’re being watched and when they’re not being watched. You will always behave if you think that at any point in your day, no matter where you are, you could be monitored.

One of the vignettes that struck me so forcefully from the book was when someone was coming, they were finally allowed to see their family member who was in a camp and the family members had to say they knew that everything was ok, like they were all good and they knew that the person in the camp was being treated well, and the person in the camp had to say yes they’re treating me well and everything’s good. And the family knew that was false, the detainee knew that was false, the guard who was watching this and who told the detainee to say that also knew it was false, and I couldn’t think of a reason for this bizarre play-acting where everyone knows a thing is false and we all have to say it out loud anyway, other than instilling absolute loyalty to the state, or absolute obedience to the state. I couldn’t come up with another reason, because I just thought it was so bizarre . . .

Jakes: . . . I mean, it’s not bizarre in the context of authoritarian political systems.

Batke: Sure.

Jakes: Right?

Batke: It was striking that everyone involved, all sides of it, knew it was not real. But yes, I guess it’s not bizarre in that way.

This kind of goes back to some of the things you were talking about earlier, Darren, but also, you mentioned you think they were surprised at the beginning about how many people they detained, and I’m also just wondering about the criteria that they’re using for detaining people. We’ve talked about those and how overly broad and arbitrary they are, and I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about how that arbitrariness can be masked at times by the use of technology. If it’s, oh there’s a fancy machine with all this data that says this person is an extremist and therefore we must arrest them, and it can mask a lot of the fact that there’s a human on the backend of that, setting what the sliders are for what gets set. You talk a lot about that in the book, and I think that’s a really important point. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about that, if that played into how many people were initially detained that they were surprised by or just any thoughts you have.

Byler: Once the system is set in motion, and there are so many incentives to detain as many people as possible in order to sort of prove your loyalty or your commitment to the campaign, you know, at the local level, proving to people higher in command, that I think when you get these really immense numbers, and technology is used to assist that for sure. So, some of the former detainees that I spoke with said they still don’t know why they were detained and no one could tell them why they were detained. They said, “you know why you were detained, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t supposed to be.” And there’s also an interrogation I heard from numerous detainees: incentives to profess your guilt even if you aren’t guilty of the thing they say you are, because if you say you are innocent you’re not portraying a good attitude, which means that you’ll be beaten more harshly. The guilt is sort of presumed as soon as the person is deemed untrustworthy. It’s very difficult, I found, in most cases, for people to get off the list if they’ve been determined to be untrustworthy. In the beginning, if you had some government connections or some, potentially, money, you could get out of it. But in general that wasn’t the case. So I think the authority of the technology really determinatively set that initial investigation and then almost in all cases the investigation comes back with the verdict of guilty. One of the things that people are also up against is being sent to prison instead of the camp, and so there’s kind of a plea bargaining that’s happening, where camp is seen as a lesser charge—and it is, you’ll get out more quickly—and so people are willing to accept whatever the police are telling them they are guilty of pretty readily. They really have no choice.

Jakes: You cite the statistic that something like half a million people were also criminally prosecuted in Xinjiang between I think 2017 and 2020, and that that’s a rate of criminal prosecution that’s many times—six times—higher than the national average. Do we have any sense of what those cases look like? Are they available? Who was getting prosecuted that way? And are all those people in prison or did some of them also wind up in these camps?

Byler: Many of those people were initially in the camps, and then after they were there for a year or more were then criminally prosecuted. That’s my sense of it, although we know that something like 200,000 or so people were sentenced in the first two years of the campaign, 2017 and ’18, and then after that they stopped actually listing—by 2019, they stopped actually listing the sentencing data but they still include the numbers prosecuted. If someone is prosecuted formally in China, there’s a 99 percent chance of being convicted. So we have a pretty good sense that those 533,000 people that were prosecuted were found guilty. We don’t know for sure that all of them were associated only with the reeducation camps, or were Muslims. But still, it gives us a sense of rates of prosecution. Many of the people that were sent to prison were people that were I think deemed still untrustworthy, not reeducated, maybe they didn’t pass language and ideology exams, in some cases it may have been that they were not deemed sort of a good fit for labor, because many of the former detainees have been sent to work in factories. It could be that they’re seen as more tightly connected to extremism and those sorts of things and so it’s more difficult for them to be rehabilitated. But we’ve seen cases of entire families that have been sentenced for having a relative living in Turkey, for giving money to those relatives living in Turkey, which is said to be supporting terrorism, those sorts of things. Many religious leaders in these communities have also been sentenced. So those are the kinds of people we see being sentenced, those whose crimes are more serious. Part of what’s happening here is that it’s just so difficult to prosecute everyone when you’ve detained so many people all at the same time. The prosecutors were just overloaded, and so I think that’s maybe why it took so much time to move them from the camps and detention centers into prisons. And they had to build the prisons, too.

Jakes: You touched on this just briefly, but maybe you could talk a little bit about how coerced labor fits into this picture that you’re painting for us. Who benefits from it? We know the Chinese Communist Party has a long tradition of reform through labor and that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has a long history both of this idea that a person’s beliefs can be beneficially altered through hard labor and about an equally long history of the forced labor of prisoners benefiting the state in various ways or cronies of the state in material ways. Is this just more of that same pattern or is there a different dynamic at play with the use of incarcerated or detained people in forced labor?

Byler: In 2018, [the Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission] said that the camps had become a carrier of the economy because they were attracting so many new companies from other parts of China, and many of these companies came as part of pairing assistance programs. Localities across eastern China have sort of adopted counties or cities in Xinjiang as their sister city or sister county and they’ve developed factories, industrial parks associated with them. So there’s some indication that there’s this mechanism that’s built into the camps and the factories where there’s kind of a pipeline from the camps to the factories. There’s subsidies for people, for the companies to relocate. And there’s assurances that the workers will be compliant, they’re told at least in some cases very directly that if they don’t work as they’re told they’ll be sent back to the camp. So there’s that dynamic that’s in play. And in some cases the camps and the factories are in the same location; in other cases they’re nearby. So you know that’s one track of labor. There’s another track of labor that’s going on at the same time, which is turning farmers and herders into factory workers. People that were not ever detained in the camps but were deemed “surplus” labor because they don’t have an employer and didn’t have a substantial enough income and are of a certain age. And those people are also graded, there’s an actual point system that they use to decide who is a secure laborer—and those laborers can be sent to eastern China—and who is a sort of normal laborer, those are sent to factories that are in the Xinjiang region, and then there’s the untrustworthy laborers who are sent to training. And one track of training is the camps. So really what we’re seeing is a sort of population-wide proletarianization, which is like a Marxist term for turning people that are doing agricultural work or non-industrial work into industrial workers and really integrating them into the wage economy, which is the Chinese marketplace. And so I think removing people from the land and placing them in the factory is another way of sort of instilling a form of power and control over the population and also a sort of forcible integration. So that seems to be one of the things that is motivating this.

Jakes: Darren, I realize I have a question a little unrelated to the book. It occurs to me that I’ve known you for several years, and I don’t know much about how you embarked on your relationship with Xinjiang as a scholar. I’m sure a book like the one that you’ve just written probably wasn’t what you had in mind at the time. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you came to Xinjiang.

Byler: Well, it was a long time ago. I went there for the first time in 2003, when I was an undergraduate student. I had been studying photojournalism and was really interested in seeing the world. I grew up in Ohio, which seems about as far away from Xinjiang as you can get—and that was my goal, really, to get as far away as I could from the places I had grown up in. As a photographer, Xinjiang was a place that was really interesting in terms of social life that happens in public—there’s this vibrant bazaar culture, landscapes in these vernacular cities that have been built over centuries. The architecture is the vernacular part of it, it’s built in the style of courtyard houses, with little winding alleyways and things like that. So initially that’s what drew me to it, is like this place seems very interesting, very different from what I understood, and I was also really interested in the way that traders and craftspeople in this space were caring for traditions that seemed really old in some ways, they were still making a lot of things by hand. So it seemed like an “intact culture” in some ways. Eventually I became an anthropologist and that interest in culture and how humans sustain themselves, how they bring indigenous or local traditions into the present, that’s really what first attracted me to the Uyghurs. I could see also at the same time as I was saying all of that, maybe not initially, but over time, that the “Open up the West” campaign, which was China’s development initiative that would go into northwest China, was going to radically transform this space. I could see already infrastructure being built, railroads and development in the space, and so as I developed my project it became about how the space is being transformed by this new economic presence of people that were moving in and all of this new development of the resources. I didn’t anticipate that there would be camps in that story. Initially I was interested in the digital infrastructure that was being built and how that was transforming Uyghur life. The way WeChat allowed them to connect with each other, find jobs, move to the city, and connect with the broader world. But then over time it became about surveillance and how that digital activity would be used to put these people in camps.

Jakes: Talk a little bit about your last couple of research trips to Xinjiang. You must have had a lot of people as an anthropologist that you got to know really well through your fieldwork, and friends. What has it been like doing research, maybe over the past, well, you pick the period, but I guess you were last there in 2018, is that right?

Byler: That’s right. I did most of my fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, which is when the People’s War on Terror began, and so most of my relationships were built then, and I was mostly spending time with Uyghur male migrants to the city. So I had all of these friends from across the region who had moved to Urumqi and initially that’s what I was studying is how they survive in a city, how they protect themselves, and how the police and other forces in the city try to control them. So that was a central tension in the initial research. In 2018 when I came back, I really couldn’t connect with those people because many of them had been taken to the camps, not necessarily because of their contact with me several years before but because they had been involved in religious activities. Most of my contacts back in 2014 and ’15 were going to the mosque, were using WeChat to talk about the Quran, and things like that. All these things that would later be outlawed. So in 2018, I couldn’t really contact them. Instead, I went to checkpoints and observed what happens in the checkpoints. I tried to travel in ways where the migrants that I’d known would have traveled, which was mostly the buses because a lot of the controls are happening in those spaces rather than in airplanes or in other more sort of affluent ways of traveling. So, I was observing all of these checkpoints, the grid system. They had hired or were in the process of hiring 60,000 new grid workers and tens of thousands more police. And so I was stopped often by these grid workers, asked for my documents, and had some conversations with them.

Jakes: The grid is a policing system, right? Not an electricity carrying system as we would think of it.

Byler: Yeah. “The grid” is a policing grid and there are convenience police stations, which is how they’re called, People’s Convenience Police Stations, every two to three hundred meters, and these grid workers, which are these low-level police, assistant police is what they’re called, they’re the ones that conduct the checks around the surveillance hubs and also these physical checkpoints. So, that’s what I was looking for was how does this grid system work. Then in 2020, I went to Kazakhstan and interviewed around 40 people, most of whom had come across the border recently, and there are maybe 15 or so detainees that I interviewed at that time, former detainees, and those stories really became the majority of the narratives that are in the book, the stories of what those people told me. Because I had spent time in the grids and seen what kind of life they had been through, I could ask them very specific questions about the things I had observed in the years before. So I think that brings a different level of detail to the stories that the former detainees could tell me.

The other thing I should mention is I’d also been looking at tens of thousands of internal police documents that were obtained by The Intercept that are very granular in level, in terms of the detail, and it’s reports written by these grid workers, the low-level police, and also the Civil Affairs Ministry people that decide who should go to the camps. So that also figures into how I understand the sort of physics of the system. And of course I’ve been working with Jessica on the surveillance documents that she’s gotten, too, which are amazing in terms of showing the capacities of the systems.

Batke: This is a little bit afield from what Susie just asked, but something that really struck me that seemed to appear in multiple places, implicitly, in the book was this idea of the partial invisibility of the Uyghur or other ethnic minorities’ experiences in terms of from the Han majority perspective. There’s a couple places where you mentioned that, for example when Vera was being put into a police car she had a Han boyfriend and so she was treated much better when he could see and then once he couldn’t see her any more how they actually treated her changed. And there’s quotes from people who are saying well there’s a lot of Han migrants who didn’t really know anything, so they figured there must be terrorists everywhere if they’re detaining all these people. And at the same time there are instances, you were describing someone on a bus and there were young Han teenagers that were yelling at them “why are you here, why haven’t you been sent away yet.” So there’s this tension of a partial invisibility of this experience and also that some Han people still have the power even though they can’t see everything to send these people away. I’m wondering how you assess how some of these Han people living in Xinjiang view what’s going on and how that does or doesn’t affect the policies that are happening in China.

Byler: I think a lot of Han people have a very partial view of the camp system and it’s really sort of limited to their own experience. Many have been assigned to work as “relatives,” to go and visit, “adopt” a Uyghur or Kazakh family and live in their home and then write reports about what they see. And that’s seen as a real inconvenience, but I don’t know that many of them fully understand what their reports will do to those people, what the camp conditions are really like. It’s hard to know for sure because sometimes when you talk to, when I talked to people in 2018, I interviewed a number of those people, they would give me a range of views. Some say, “oh, it is kind of a school, of course they’re being punished but it is sort of a school.” And others would say it is going to be really difficult because they’ve been torn apart from their families and stuff, so they acknowledge those aspects of it, but I don’t know if they knew exactly how horrific conditions in the camp were. You know, these people are shackled and have hoods put over their heads and are treated in really inhumane ways. Of course, there are many people that actually work in the camps and I think have a very full view of what’s going on. But it’s hard to know how that breaks down across an entire population. The people that actually live in the region that are from that region, people that see themselves as local to Xinjiang and, you know, Uyghur food is really their food, those Han people see what’s happening as something that I think is a really dramatic overreach. Because I think that they understand that Uyghurs are not terrorists in general, they’ve lived with them for decades and it’s been fine. So I think that there is sort of that knowledge when it comes to how long has that person been in the region, who do they know, what have they seen. There’s so much gaslighting in the media that I think it’s really hard for people to know what they’re hearing from Chinese state media what is the truth about this system

Jakes: The Associated Press just published a story reporting that some of the most visible signs of control in Xinjiang, particularly the technological ones, have disappeared from the streets of Xinjiang’s larger cities. Surveillance cameras are being taken down. Of course, China’s government announced at the end of 2019 that everyone who needed reeducation had already been fully reeducated and that the camps were closed. Obviously these two pieces of information come from very different sources, a very good Associate Press reporter on one hand and maybe a slightly more unreliable narrative on the other side. But the reporter, Dake Kang, writes that the panic that had gripped the region a few years ago has subsided considerably and that there’s a sense of normality creeping back in. I want to ask both of you: What do you make of this? How do you understand what is happening now?

Byler: I’ve talked to Dake, the author of the Associated Press piece, many times, including after his recent trip, and during that same trip he went to what is now called the No. 3 jail, kanshousuo, which is in Dabancheng. It’s the largest camp that there was. And what he saw there was that just basically the name had been changed from camp, or reeducation center, to jail. And he went inside and saw the cells that in the past were the camp cells and are now jail cells. So, really what’s happening is the shift I think from internment to imprisonment. So there’s sort of a warehousing of these people that formerly were in the camps and maybe had some potential of being released and are now being held inside the prisons. And they would say this too, that the surveillance equipment that’s being taken down is in urban areas and is in places where international visitors travel more frequently. And so I think if it’s intentionally being taken down, which we see cameras being ripped out of the wall basically, or off the poles with the wires still there, that I think is because there is some narrative control that the state is really wanting to do. In other parts of Xinjiang, especially northern Xinjiang, there’s also now checkpoints that are no longer being used, where the equipment isn’t really functional, and it seems as though both there’s not funding to keep it functional and also there’s not political will, that they don’t really see the urgency in having those checkpoints there anymore.

So, it’s hard to know what exactly is motivating these changes. I think international pressure is a major factor, though, and it shouldn’t be discounted. Part of it is, I think, that maybe they feel that the systems have accomplished what they wanted them to do, which is terrify the entire population and transform them to put them to work in these factories without any forms of resistance. Does that sound right to you, Jessica?

Batke: Yeah. I really worry that some of this dismantling that we’re seeing, or the outward signs of a return to normalcy are manifestations of the fact that the government thinks it’s successfully executed parts of this campaign. I mean, the important part is that even when people are out, they’re not in camps, they’re on the street, they are still being watched, even if those cameras have been ripped off the poles, everybody carries a tracking device with them all the time, right? And people can be questioned, “why don’t you have a smartphone,” right? So there are still ways of monitoring people. Everyone knows that. Uyghurs in the diaspora are still cut off from their family members. Even if their family members are out of the camps, they’re not talking to them. So, my concern is that this outward sign of normality can help mask the fact that a lot of these people are still really unfree and in important ways. It’s quite canny if you’re the Chinese government.

Jakes: How do you understand how China’s leaders see the end game of this process? 1.5 million people, and if you include the 500,000 kids that are in—what do you call them, jail orphanages—children who have been separated from their parents. When you’re talking about roughly or more than 10 percent of the whole ethnic minority population of Xinjiang, is the expectation that this is just something that has now reached a stage where it can continue? Do you think it’s reached a stasis? Or what might we expect next? I realize that’s a hard question.

Byler: What the government says that they’re doing is that they’re attempting to create long-term stability, that it’s a solution to the “Xinjiang problem,” and so they need to have firm resolve in accomplishing this mission. I don’t know exactly what that means, it’s quite big, but I think in general it means that this is a long process that should be thought of as at a generational scale. And so I think they really feel like the children who are in these residential boarding schools—and there’s a whole range of them, from “kindness centers” for the children, the toddlers, to formal schools—they’ve hired 90,000 new teachers who are politically loyal, many from outside of the Uyghur region who are non-Muslims, to teach in these schools. I think they feel like that educational aspect of the residential schools, that is really what will produce a new generation of Uyghurs and Kazakhs who will have a lot less loyalty to their identity, who will perhaps see their identity as lacking in some ways. Of course we know from other colonial experiments that residential schools don’t often accomplish what they are intended to do. Instead, they traumatize entire populations. And so I think what we’ll see going forward is trauma playing out throughout the entire population of the Uyghur society and Kazakh society. The factory separation aspects of this system where they’re sending farmers and herders to other parts of China, other parts of Xinjiang, separating them from their children, that’s a process of fragmenting the basic social units, the families themselves, which is the source of social reproduction—the future of the society. So I think that in the long term, along with the family planning rules and all that, is really what is going to diminish the vitality of Uyghur and Kazakh society going forward.

Batke: Yeah, I completely agree that this is something that I think the leadership is thinking about in generational terms. The goal is not to stop Uyghurs from being, it’s to stop Uyghurs from being Uyghur, in all the ways that the Chinese government has determined that to be problematic. While these boarding schools are absolutely going to traumatize people—and everything that’s happening right now is going to traumatize people—they are keeping these children from speaking Uyghur. A lot of these kids might grow up not being able to speak it. There are ways that they are managing to cut off that cultural transmission through this. I don’t know where we go next from here, but I do think it is a generational time-scale they are working on.

Jakes: I wanted to turn to the final section of the book, Darren, where you write at length about the role of technology. AI, many kinds of technology developed outside of China for, if not perfectly benign, then at least far less overtly abusive purposes than the ones that they’re being used for in Xinjiang have been fairly easily transmuted into instruments of repression in the context of Xinjiang. Some of the same kinds of biometric scanning devices and software being used to combat COVID have had far more sinister applications in Xinjiang. So I wonder, in ending the book that way, do you see this as a cautionary tale about technology per se, or more about something else, the dangers of letting it fall into the wrong hands? Explain your view of technology.

Byler: Some of what I was doing was thinking in terms of the narrative of the book. I start in Seattle with Vera Zhou coming from the University of Washington and I end in Seattle with companies that are coming from Seattle back to China. There’s a central player, which is the University of Washington, in that story, and also Microsoft and others. So that was sort of what I was thinking. This is supposed to be about a global issue, and I wanted to draw out those connections. I think this is a story about technology and about the role of surveillance in the world. In the West, we’re in the digital enclosure as well. We’ve mostly consented to be in it by saying yes to Facebook and Twitter and all the other apps we have on our phones. So as a consumer and as someone who’s protected in terms of our citizenship status, for most of us, that’s maybe concerning, that our phones know so much about us, these companies know so much about us. But it’s a choice that we’ve made and our situation is not dire. For people that are in less protected situations, like the Uyghurs for instance, and every stateless population, asylum seekers at the southern border of the U.S. are also in a similar sort of position where their social media can be used against them to track their social network and control them. For them, it’s not just a choice, it’s about the future of their lives themselves. And so I think we should think about the moral implications of building such tools that have this differential effect on people that are less protected. What I’d like to see technologists and people thinking about ethics and politics advocate a bit more forcefully is tools that are designed in a way that protect the people that are most vulnerable. So that’s what I hope people get out of the book.

The other thing I want to point out is how normal these technologies are. We use them all the time, or we experience them in many ways. When you go through customs at the airport you have your face scanned, you have your biometrics taken. All the same tools are being used dozens of times a day in Xinjiang. The difference is really the scale and the protections of the people that are being assessed by those tools.

So part of the issue is not only the technology but also the laws. Another indictment that’s in the book, buried in there, is thinking about terrorism and counterterrorism, and who counts as a terrorist, and how there’s a racialized aspect to that discourse that comes out of the West and has now been adopted by China.