China’s ‘social re-engineering’ of Uyghurs, explained by Darren Byler

By Lucas Niewenhuis | August 15, 2019

Mass internment in concentration camps, forced labor, parent-child separation: These are just a few of the realities of life for Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. Scholar Darren Byler explains.

Top photo: Kashgar, Xinjiang, in September 2017 / David Stanley

In late 2017 and throughout the next year, the world learned with horror that China had constructed an archipelago of internment camps in the far-west region of Xinjiang. Inside those camps, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Muslim people — mostly Uyghurs, but also ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and others — were being forced to disavow their religious beliefs, learn Chinese, and swear allegience to the state. It was an abusive mass assimilation program on a scale, and with a level of technological sophistication, that the world had never seen before. 

In August 2018, SupChina documented the initial uncovering of evidence from multiple eyewitnesses, journalists, scholars, and a trove of government-procurement data and satellite imagery in an explainer titled, Re-education camps in China’s “no-rights zone” for Muslims

The detention facilities fit the definition of “concentration camp,” as reports indicate that those locked up behind barbed wire are targeted for their affiliation with a religious and cultural minority, held extralegally without indictment or fair trial, and subject to conditions clearly designed to reinforce the state’s political control.

Around 1.5 million people have been detained in these camps, according to independent scholar Adrian Zenz

Recently, the government in Beijing has signalled a shift in its assimilation program in Xinjiang — or at least, the way it talks about it. Last month, the government released a white paper that denied the ethnic connections that Uyghur people share with Turkic people. Government officials also alleged that many, or even most, of those detained had “returned to society,” though they were imprecise with the numbers. Large amounts of the “students” had “successfully achieved employment” or “found suitable work,” they added, though this was also dubious because there have been multiple reports of forced labor in and adjacent to the internment camps in Xinjiang. 

To dig into what is really happening in Xinjiang now, and what it means for the lives of Uyghur people and for the world, I talked with Darren Byler. A lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington who speaks Uyghur and has researched Uyghur culture extensively, he also writes the Xinjiang Column for SupChina. 

We focused on these topics: 

  • What led to the current situation in Xinjiang?
  • What is the best way to describe the current situation? Is “cultural genocide” an accurate term?
  • How prevalent is parent-child separation for Uyghur families? 
  • How common is forced labor, and have any detained Uyghurs actually been able to return to something close to their former lives? 
  • Why have Muslim countries stayed silent, or even voiced support for Beijing’s policies?
  • What surveillance technologies are being used, and which Western companies and institutions are complicit? 
  • What can and should the United States do about this human rights crisis?

Click on each question to expand the answer from Darren Byler. All answers have been lightly edited.

What led to the current situation in Xinjiang?

There’s a long history of conflict between the Chinese state and the Uyghur people that’s been going on for decades, and that has intensified as industry has been built out in the Uyghur region and Uyghurs have been excluded in large part from that industry. 

In 2014 there were a series of incidents, first in Beijing and then in Kunming, and then several in Urumqi, that really caught the Chinese government off guard and really got the Chinese public itself interested in what was happening in Xinjiang. And they wanted something to change. And so that’s when the state declared what they called the “people’s war” on terror. That was May of 2014. But over the next two years or so, until 2016, there were still incidents of violence, so I think the Chinese state decided that that approach wasn’t working…they decided they wanted to shift the approach toward re-education, and that’s when they started building camps. 

At that point they decided that it wasn’t just simply people that carried out violent acts or people connected to them, but it was the population as a whole that should be targeted. They had noticed that the population had begun to become more religious in its outward appearance or practice. They’d become more pious. They’d always been Islamic. But they had begun to, you know, dress differently, to be more concerned with Halal products, things like that. And so [the authorities] began to see that as extremism, as something that leads to terrorism. They began to conflate religious practice with Islamic violence. And so most of the people that were targeted for the reeducation were people that appeared Islamic in their appearance. There’s lots of overlap between broader forms of Islamophobia in the world and what has happened to the Uyghurs. 

Islamophobia has now gone mainstream across China, and this is done through a conscious campaign by the Chinese state and a permitted indifference to it happening from the general public.

There is also this racialized and ethnic component to it, which has to do with Uyghurs looking different from Han people and speaking a different language and coming from a space that they consider their homeland — historically where they’re from, for thousands of years. They’re kind of an indigenous group in that way.

What is the best way to describe the current situation? Is “cultural genocide” an accurate term?

The term I might use instead is social engineering or social re-engineering. I think that the benefits of that term is that it goes beyond just the cultural erasure, which is happening and is no doubt really important. But all of the basic institutions of Uyghur society are being transformed. 

The social institutions that I’m thinking about are institutions like their religion — Islam — and the family, which is a basic unit of their society, and also language. [See: Darren’s January column for SupChina, The “patriotism” of not speaking Uyghur.] And all of these things have cultural elements to them, but they’re also like built forms, and/or they may inhabit certain spaces or in the past held certain spaces of autonomy. The mosque, for example, was controlled by the state to some extent, but it was also the space where people could assemble, where people could talk, where a system of values and beliefs and practices could be put in motion around what things you should eat, how you should get married, who you should get married to, how you should die, all the ritual surrounding that, what it meant to be a good person. All of those things are part of religious practice and belief. And so it was a really important part of people’s lives. 

And the family unit — that’s the space of the home, and in the past there was a sort of sovereignty in that space. You know, maybe what happened in school or what happened in your workplace was something that the state could control, but in your house, that was your space. Now that sovereignty has gone away because there are daily visits by police. Children are informing on their parents. There are often these “relatives” that are living in people’s homes. So the family unit itself has sort of been torn apart — and also there’s child-parent separation that’s endemic throughout the society.

Language was also in an autonomous space — on the internet, in literature, there was a semi-public space where they felt fairly free to use Uyghur without fear of repercussions because the state couldn’t control it. People weren’t being punished for saying things out loud in Uyghur. Now if you say things out loud in Uyghur, you are punished, and so that space of autonomy is also going away.

How prevalent is parent-child separation for Uyghur families?

With 1.5 million people in the camps or thereabouts, almost all of them have a child that’s connected to them. So many people are missing one parent, and tens of thousands of children are missing more. Then we have to think beyond the camps, the kind of forced labor situation or coerced labor where people are assigned a job apart from their children, and the children are taken to “kindergarten,” and stuff like that. That’s going way beyond just 1.5 million. At least. We don’t know exactly what the scale is, but it’s a significant number of people beyond the camp number that are also being moved into new locations and separated from family. 

How common is forced labor, and have any detained Uyghurs actually been able to return to something close to their former lives?

[Full question: You mentioned forced labor. My impression is that because the propaganda is focusing on how many Uyghurs are getting jobs — they’re trained, right? — that forced labor could be increasing. But I don’t know if there’s any way to verify or define that. What is your knowledge of the different pathways that internees take? Some have been deemed properly “reformed” and released, but how often are they released to just “graduate” to a state-mandated factory job? Or have there been cases where people have been able to genuinely return to something close to their former lives?]

I think in almost all cases, people have not yet returned to the kind of life they had before they were detained. I think we should be careful using the term “released” or “graduated,” or what have you, because they have really just transitioned into another part of the reeducation system. I don’t have good numbers as to how many people have been released. But I think you’re right to note that it appears as though there’s the beginning of a transition, in some ways, that there are larger and larger numbers moving from the camp space into something else. My understanding is that in order for that to happen, you have to pass Chinese language exams and ideology exams. You have to have exemplary behavior and have to be very good at talking about how re-education has improved your life and stuff like that. 

The factory spaces themselves are still reeducation spaces in the sense that they’re watched very closely there. They’re not permitted to leave without permission, and usually permission isn’t given. Many people that are working in factories are not able to contact their families. It’s a Chinese-language-speaking environment — at least that’s what it’s supposed to be, according to the government documents I’ve read. The people are supposed to be learning basic suzhi, which is like basic “quality” as a worker — what it means to be an industrial laborer. I think from the Chinese state perspective, what they’re doing is a proletarianization of the Uyghurs — turning them into a working class. 

Most of them are involved in textile manufacturing, and they’re not being paid very much at all. In some cases it’s basically free labor. In other cases it’s 300, 600 yuan per month ($42.5 / $85), which is way below minimum wage, way below the standard factory salary. In other cases they are getting something closer to the minimum wage, but it’s still very cheap labor, definitely cheaper than textile factory work in a place like Shenzhen, where a lot of these companies are based. So a lot of the companies are setting up what they call micro-factories, which is like a branch of their factory that’s actually based in another part of China. And they’re gradually shifting operations to Xinjiang, as they build these new factory spaces. The factory owners are given incentives for each worker, subsidies from the state, up to 5,000 yuan ($700) that’s paid over three years, at least in Kashgar prefecture, I’ve seen. And the justification for not paying them that I’ve seen — and it’s not always justified at all, it’s pretty opaque — is that because they give them room and boarding and also training as workers in Chinese, they don’t need to pay them, basically. It’s an internship, and so they don’t deserve a salary.

Those that have been released into something closer to their former life are often still under neighborhood watch. For instance, one friend of mine, who was working in a textile factory for a number of months and now is back Urumqi, is resuming his graduate studies. He has been told that he’s only permitted to go from his house to his school and back to his house. Any deviation from that route can result in problems — he could be detained again, he could be sent back to the camp, sent back to the factory where he was working. So he’s still under a kind of house arrest.

Why have Muslim countries stayed silent, or even voiced support for Beijing’s policies?

[Full question: Why do you think Uyghurs have received relatively little advocacy for their cause from the Muslim world, from other Muslim majority countries, or even Turkey? Are Uyghurs culturally or religiously distinct from Muslims in other countries, or how much of that barrier is constructed by Beijing?]

I think most of that barrier is constructed by Beijing. Uyghurs are very, very similar to other Turkic groups, especially Uzbeks, Kazaks, to some extent, Kyrgyz, and people in Turkey. When Uyghurs go to Turkey, they can kind of assimilate and integrate into society quite well — not fully assimilate, but they can get by…They can understand Turkish spoken in Turkey quite easily, and in the space of six months to a year, they can speak Turkish quite fluently. They’re embraced by Turkish people as well. Uyghurs are seen as sort of “ur-Turks,” the original Turks, like where the Turkic peoples themselves came from is from where the Uyghurs are from. So they’re seen as even a purer form of Turk in some ways than Turkish people in Istanbul. 

Most of the distancing that’s happened has been political. It’s been because the Chinese state has used its power in the world, its ability to control trade and other things, to get agreements with countries to cooperate when it comes to the Uyghur issue, to deport people through extradition treaties — at least in central Asian states, not in Turkey as much, at least not yet. 

Then there’s a secondary factor in most Muslim-majority states, which is that they’re also autocratic, not necessarily in favor of human rights and democracy, and also often fighting dissidents in their states. In some cases those incidents are framed as Islamic dissidents. So the Chinese state says that they have, you know, terrorists that they’re dealing with. Those Islamic states are often inclined to believe them, not necessarily because they actually believe them, but because they just agree with what the Chinese state is doing because they’re also doing similar things in their own states, and they don’t want people to intervene in their states when they do those things. 

Oftentimes in Muslim-majority states, China is seen as a counterweight to the United States, and the United States has a really bad history in a lot of Muslim areas of intervening militarily. That’s probably the third factor is the global game: Having China as your ally allows you some leverage when it comes to the U.S.

What kinds of surveillance technologies have been used in Xinjiang, and which Western companies and institutions are complicit in the development of those technologies?

There’s a whole range of them. There are 1,400 tech firms that are working in Xinjiang — almost all Chinese firms, but many of them are connected to other spaces, either through investment or partnerships. The primary firms are firms like Hikvision, Dahua…CloudWalk was a major one. SenseNets has definitely been implicated in this, and SenseNets was part of SenseTime until very recently. SenseTime is now trying to back off and say that they’re not doing anything in Xinjiang, but in the past they had joint ventures with security in Xinjiang with a firm called Leon Technology, which is a Xinjiang-based firm that does a lot of similar work to SenseTime and also to Face++ and Megvii. Both Face++ and SenseTime are now saying that they’re not involved Xinjiang, but in the past they certainly were. 

And it’s very likely that their software and some of their technology is still being used in Xinjiang, even if they’re not servicing it directly. Hikvision is connected to a larger firm called the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). CETC is the firm that services the integrated joint operations platform, which is actually the major interface that compiles all this data that’s coming from these different places. It’s going from face surveillance to voice surveillance to surveillance of digital histories. That’s actually one of the main ways that people have been caught, is by [police] going through their WeChat history — so in that sense, Tencent is implicated in this as well. The police have a plugin device and they also have a WiFi-enabled device that can scan through people’s phones and recover data that’s been deleted. 

They say they can do this in the space of two minutes. And in a given police district, probably 3,000 phones are scanned each week through random checkpoints. Usually through that scanning, they’ll come up with a couple of people that they’ll find, you know, had been part of a Quran study group, back in 2015 or 2016, back when that wasn’t considered illegal — or maybe it was illegal technically, but people didn’t think that it was because everyone was doing it. One of the firms doing that scanning stuff is a firm called Meiya Pico. There are several others, too. 

Here are some of the connections. It’s a messy, messy system, and it’s hard to trace all the parts. 

SenseTime has a partnership with MIT. So there’s that connection. Another firm that’s doing voice signature stuff is iFlytek. They also have a partnership with MIT. CloudWalk has partnerships with the University of Illinois. The CEO of CloudWalk was trained at the University of Illinois, and his advisor, at least until 2018, was still working in collaborative ways with CloudWalk. University of Illinois is connected to IBM, so there’s IBM people involved in that project, too. They even had funding from the U.S. military — kind of bizarre. Microsoft has some connections, although they’re not very close. Microsoft Research Asia, which is based in Beijing, has trained a lot of the people that are doing face surveillance in Xinjiang, but it’s not necessarily a direct connection. Some of the researchers at Microsoft though are directly connected to things that have happened in Xinjiang. They’ve gone to Xinjiang for conferences and stuff like that. Although, again, it’s still hard to prove that they’re directly involved. But they’re collaborating with people that are directly involved, so that’s still there. The biggest collaboration actually is with the chips that are being used — the Intel chips — a lot of the equipment is still run on American-made chips. And of course Microsoft has corporate clients in Xinjiang that are using Microsoft products. The Chinese state is using Microsoft products, and so Microsoft is quite connected as well. They’re not with the surveillance technology directly, but with the sort of infrastructure that people involved in surveillance are using. 

In terms of investment, there’s lots of funding that’s going into these spaces. That’s also hard to trace, too, because it’s often through mutual funds like Silver Lake, which takes money from lots of different people, including a lot of public funds. The pension fund of Washington state workers is invested in Silver Lake, which in turn is invested in SenseTime — that’s investment that’s like two or three steps removed from U.S. sources. All of this is a really complex chain, which means that there are lots of parts you could push on, which in that sense is good, but it also makes it hard to really convince people that what they’re doing is wrong because it feels a few steps removed from the actual end product.

What can and should the United States do about this human rights crisis?

[Full question: Do you have any hope that the Trump administration is going to impose sanctions on Chinese companies or officials involved in constructing or managing the camps? Besides sanctions, what could the United States government do about what’s happening in Xinjiang? What can ordinary Americans do about this?]

I think the Trump administration sees what’s happening in Xinjiang, if they see it at all, as a bargaining chip in the larger trade war. I think Trump himself and Steve Mnuchin are reluctant to do something that’s really directly connected to human rights violations. I think they want to see something connected to trade, if they’re going to do anything. And I think they’re mostly concerned with winning — in their terms — the trade war. I know that there are a lot of folks in the Trump administration that are concerned about religious freedom, or say they are, or they’re anticommunist, sort of pulling on Cold War rhetoric, and want to see China punished in every way, and do really want sanctions to be imposed. But I don’t think they really are in the positions of power to make those things happen. 

I’m not that hopeful that it will happen, although it could. I mean, we have bills before Congress, in both houses, Uyghur human rights bills, that would impose Magnitsky sanctions on key leaders and corporations that are involved in Xinjiang. Maybe if there is bipartisan support, and these things get passed, the Trump administration would agree to it. It’s not totally clear. I think in U.S. politics, there are a lot of other things that people see as priorities before this. 

The other thing that can be done is that we need to look more closely at what these post-camp spaces and systems look like. Manufacturing: a lot of it is going to U.S. consumers. Xinjiang produces 80 percent of China’s cotton, and 20-something percent of the world’s tomatoes, so there are basic staples that are coming from Xinjiang, and as textile manufacturing moves west, for the cheap labor, I think we’re going to see more and more manufacturing of textiles from Xinjiang. So that means there are spaces where as consumers we can push back. Most major retailers in the United States have accepted Xinjiang cotton, and continue to do so. 

But there needs to be more work done to show how these things are directly connected. And to talk and to show more explicitly what the conditions are like in the factory spaces. Those are two things. I think we can do political work at the higher level, and we could do more grassroots work around boycotting and stuff like that. The other thing, I guess the third thing, would be that you can organize at a local level with local government, where there are corporations that are involved in Xinjiang or sister city arrangements with Chinese cities. There, you can organize more quickly and more effectively. I know that there’s people in Seattle here that are working with the mayor’s office to try and put pressure on Microsoft and others.

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