In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony — a damning account

It is hard to avoid the history of concentration camps when describing the system of maximum-security “reeducation” facilities that the Chinese Communist party has built since 2017 in Xinjiang.

The tragedies of the Boer war, Nazi Germany and the Soviet gulags are illustrative context but also only partial analogues. While some forms of 20th-century repression remain, the modern world of high-tech surveillance has created new forms of control.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, writes that he had these “continuities and ruptures” in mind when describing Xinjiang’s system of mass internment in his book, In The Camps.

In this intimate, sombre and damning account of the forces that led China to intern and “re-educate” more than 1m Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim people in Xinjiang, Byler argues that the camp system is, at minimum, of a scale and degree of cruelty beyond all obvious contemporary parallels.

China maintains that the facilities’ Chinese lessons and courses on Chinese Communist party ideology were a form of “vocational training” provided to preemptively combat a rising tide of “extremist” thought. In September 2020, the Xinjiang government said these programmes were concluding, a claim contested by overseas Uyghur activists.

Byler’s conclusion is a reminder that China’s internment programme, which he calls the largest internment of a religious minority since the second world war, has global implications for surveillance and modern policing that should be considered in their own right.

As one of a small number of anthropologists who exploited a period of relative openness to carry out fieldwork in Xinjiang before the Chinese government drastically restricted access to the region, Byler’s compelling case is based on testimony from a broad cross-section of Xinjiang society. Among his interviewees are former Uyghur detainees, a contact law enforcement officer, a camp teacher and a Kazakh farmer.

These varied personal accounts tell of pervasive confusion and fear as, starting in 2017, a previously small-scale “reeducation” programme suddenly became a sprawling system of internment camps where anyone suspected of “extremist thoughts” or “pre-crimes” was sent without trial.

There, they were subjected to cruel and occasionally bizarre rituals, supposedly in the name of ridding them of incorrect thoughts, such as singing renditions of “patriotic” songs before being fed. “It is very difficult to sing like they wanted us to when you are hungry. Sometimes they would yell at us, ‘Sing again! Sing again!’ like it was a game for them,” one former detainee told Byler.

These visceral accounts are interspersed with concise descriptions framing what is happening in Xinjiang in a long history of colonial power, dehumanising technologies and state-sanctioned forced labour. “Over the past three decades Xinjiang has come to serve as a classic peripheral colony — catering to the needs of the metropoles in Shanghai and Shenzhen,” he writes.

As such, Byler argues, those implicated in Xinjiang’s “penal colony” are not merely party officials but also the white-collar workers of China’s artificial intelligence start-ups or the Hong Kong boutique shops buying gloves sown by Uyghur labourers. And also, by extension, western consumers, since Xinjiang now produces “around a quarter” of the world’s cotton.

Despite the global implications of China’s camps, Byler avoids discussing the diplomatic spats that the clampdown sparked, as well as the western debate over whether to call the crackdown “genocide”. Even if the mass internment, birth control and forced separation of children from parents meet definitions of genocide in United Nations conventions, Byler does not need the term to deliver a sense of tragedy.

Instead, the variety and consistency of testimonies are in themselves a powerful rebuttal to the Chinese government, which claims its critics rely on a handful of accounts from a small number of individuals that it says are not credible.

The individual tales of suffering show the dehumanising power of the surveillance and internment system pioneered in Xinjiang. “The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality,” Byler writes in a summary of the process of being identified as “untrustworthy”. Some were able to escape punishment with displays of loyalty, but “those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps.”

As a result of this process, “[detainees] 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.”

Even if China has stabilised Xinjiang, it has done so at the cost of inflicting deep wounds upon the psyche of the people who call the region home.

In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony by Darren Byler, Columbia Global Reports $16.99/Atlantic Books £12.99, 160 pages

Christian Shepherd is the FT’s former Beijing correspondent

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