Book review: In the Camps by Darren Byler

Per-Åke Westerlund, International Socialist Alternative

Three hundred camps with more than a million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are probably the most brutal expressions of the CCP dictatorship in China.

In Darren Byler’s new book, In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, Vera Zhou, Qelbinur, Erbaqyt, Gulzira and others tell their stories from the camps. Byler also underlines the link between global high-tech capitalism and increased repression.

For Xinjiang, increased exploitation and a large influx of Han Chinese settlers signaled China’s return to capitalism in the 1990s. Extensive raw materials and resources, excellent conditions for agriculture and the important geo-strategic position made it a key region for Beijing. With a market economy, the previous relative autonomy disappeared. The Han population that was six percent in 1949 has today increased to over 40 percent while Uyghurs now are less than 50 percent.

The process in which Uyghurs became described as “untrustworthy”, “two-faced” and “terrorists” coincided with capitalist globalisation, new technology, discrimination and oppression. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime in Beijing started to fear demands for independence and increased interest for Muslim culture and religion in Xinjiang. After 9/11 and US imperialism’s *war on terror”, the CCP followed the same track. The two powers cooperated with anti-terror measures with China urging the US to capture Uyghurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan and bring them to the notorious camp at Guantanamo. None of the 22 detained Uyghurs had been involved in jihadist wars.

In 2014, Beijing declared its own “People’s war on terror”, thereby criminalizing all 15 million Muslims in Xinjiang. Byler describes the background. In 2009, the racist lynching of two Uyghur factory workers that had been forced to move to Guandong province in the southeast of China, led to mass protests in Xinjiang. The police firing shots into the crowd and killing demonstrators caused riots in which 130 Han Chinese were killed. This was followed by a militarisation of society against the population, increasing the already strong mood against discrimination, land grabbing etc. 2013–14 also saw violent attacks on Han civilians by Uyghur individuals.

In this period, social media and smartphones entered Xinjiang. A lot of especially young people started to find out more about the rest of the world, not least about their history and culture. Online Muslim imams reached a new audience.

Check points, camps and birth rates

“People’s war on terror” transformed Xinjiang. Byler summarizes:

“In the space of half a decade, the state built a system of checkpoints first between counties and then within urban jurisdictions. They established a passcard system that restricted the movement of Uyghurs within the region and confiscated passports from the few Uyghurs and Kazakhs who had obtained them. They sent as many as 1.1 million state workers into Uyghur and Kazakh rural communities to conduct assessments of the ‘untrustworthy’ Muslims. They hired over ninety thousand additional assistant police who were tasked with scanning Muslim phones and IDs, producing a density of policing that rivaled East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They also began building a network of high security internment camps, which at the height of detentions would hold between 10 to 20 percent of the adult population — the proportion of the population that regional authorities deemed to have developed the ‘tumors’ of religious extremism. At the same time, the state’s Civil Affairs Ministry began to enforce a ‘zero illegal births policy’ that, along with endemic family separation caused by detentions, precipitated a drop in birth rates of 50 to 80 percent.”

When Darren Byler for this book returned to Xinjiang, where he has been conducting academic research in periods since 2010, 40 of his students and friends had disappeared. They were in camps.

Checkpoints and technology were used for mass arrests, as told by Vera Zhou, a student from University of Washington visiting her boyfriend: “The police scanned Vera’s face and irises, recorded her voice signature, and collected her blood, fingerprints, and DNA.” She was sent to a camp for using a VPN and visiting foreign websites. She was later released for having been totally *reeducated”. could go back to Seattle and thereby tell her story,

Most in the camps have no idea why they were detained, surmising it’s because they had visited a mosque, had worn veil or had a long beard, visited Kazakhstan or used WeChat on their mobiles.

One of the main reasons for being detained is breaking family planning rules. Beijing’s policy, behind slogans of supporting women against a primitive culture, aimed for a sharp drop in the birth rate among Uyghurs. Even state employees working in the system are forced to insert IUDs.

The system includes local spies as in fascist and stalinist dictatorships. “Anyone can be an informant; no one is a guaranteed ally; and the algorithms of cameras and scanners are always on.”

“Pre-criminals” in prison “schools”

Most of the detainees are regarded as “pre-criminals” and subject to prisons called schools. The book describes the drill: overcrowded cells with cameras and loudspeakers, speaking Uyghur or Kazakh is forbidden, prisoners ordered to give self-confessions, watching television and learning to quote Xi Jinping and patriotic Chinese songs, not being allowed to leave the cell apart from a few seconds of showers once a week. Any moving or talking in the cells would immediately lead to punishments. Guards used both clubs and electric batons, as well as shouting. Getting food required a lot of singing and chanting that the food was provided by Xi.

Regional CCP secretary Chen Quanguo summarized the character of the camps: “Teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”,

The number of 300 camps is based on official contract bidding för construction, satellite pictures and interviews with former detainees and camp workers. Official statistics also show that 533 000 were prosecuted in Xinjiang in 2017–2020, six times higher than national average, and more than 500,000 children were sent to residential boarding schools.

State and private cooperation

The “war on terror”, criminalizing the entire Muslim population in Xinjiang, is closely connected to heavy investments in infrastructure and industry. Beijing is heavily dependent on oil, gas, cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, both domestically and for export. An operation to move one million textile jobs to the region is ongoing, exploiting low wages and slave labour conditions. Most low value textile manufacturing has left other provinces of China because it is no longer profitable. The state is subsidizing the companies moving to Xinjiang.

Workers are recruited through coercion. Those released from camps are told they must choose between the factory or being sent back to the camps. Wages are extremely low, with random deductions made by the bosses. Workers are placed in dormitories, separated from their families.

Private tech and surveillance companies have made enormous profits and developed world-leading technologies for facial recognition and “smart cities”. So too during the pandemic. Byler tells how Amazon bought Chinese heat-mapping systems to control body temperatures in workplaces.

Security investments in Xinjiang have increased by 50 percent since 2016, with 1,400 private companies competing for orders worth 8 billion dollars.

The smart cities concept is presented as assisting its citizens, lowering emissions and other positive steps, but is basically a system for increased control, surveillance and possible repression. For politicians and capitalists, it is presented as a system to protect private property. It’s a fast growing and very profitable business.

Alongside smart cities, the techniques used in Xinjiang are also common in anti-terrorist policies and in border controls against refugees. Byler gives the examples of the southern borders of the US and police departments in most cities. He also reports that British counter-terrorism experts were invited to Xinjiang in 2017.

Behind Seattle and Seoul stands Xinjiang

Byler compares today’s globalization with the 1800s. He quotes the historian Jason Moore who said “Behind Manchester stands Mississippi”. This was based on Friedrich Engels analysis of the textile industry in Manchester that dominated the world, — and was made possible by the slave system in Mississippi.

The leading company in China behind the 1984-type system in Xinjiang and China, Megvii, has been particularly close to Microsoft and University of Washington in Seattle. Microsoft’s vice president Kai-Fu Lee invested venture capital in Megvii which set up its US headquarters close to Microsoft’s and recruited leading computer academics in the US. It was modeled on Silicon Valley and the US tech industry.

With these resources, Megvii developed its face++ recognition system. Including a Uyghur alarm. In the US, it can be used against black people. “In many ways the Xinjiang re-education tools were a product of this world”, concludes Byler, and “the world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance”.

Based on Jason Moore and Engels, he states that behind Seattle stands Xinjiang. Other globally leading companies, such as Amazon, Google and Adobe, as well as Seoul’s Samsung are also linked to Megvii.

In China, a main investor in Megvii was Alibaba, the megacompany wanted to follow similar investments from its US counterparts, Amazon and Google. The main force, however, was the state. In 2017, Megvii established “in-depth partnership” with police in 256 cities and regions in China.

Byler’s book, as with his other writings on Xinjiang, are very informative. Any accusations from Beijing that he represents US imperialism have no basis. Fighting the colonial racist oppression in Xinjiang goes hand-in-hand with fighting US multinationals and the state. Lessons from fighting repression should be shared by workers and youth globally.

The necessary internationalist and socialist conclusions are developed in the analysis and struggles of and International Socialist Alternative. The fate of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs is linked to the struggle in China. As one of the witnesses in the book, Erbqyt, puts it, “I can’t blame the Chinese people for this, they are victims too”.