Home Bookend - Where reading meets review In The Camps: China’s Hi-Tech Penal Colony – Darren Byler

In The Camps: China’s Hi-Tech Penal Colony – Darren Byler

by Venky

Erbaqyt Otarbai, a middle aged Kazakh man who called Tacheng, a town six hours away from Urumchi, was unloading his truck in an ore yard. It was the 18th of August 2017. Chinese security guards pounced on him and before he could even fathom what was unraveling, they started interrogating Otarbai about the WhatsApp and Facebook applications on his mobile phone. Inspite of his fervent entreaties that all the supposedly ‘offending’ apps were downloaded while he was in Kazakhstan and was primarily for the purposes of communicating with his friends back home, Otarbai was dragged away by the cops and made to undergo a “physical.” Photos of his face from every conceivable angle were followed by blood samples, fingerprinting and voice recording. In the dead of the night, at around 2.00 A.M he was deposited in a ‘detention’ camp, upon entering which there was delivered a welcoming blow to the top of his head with an iron club. A bloodied Otarbai spent ninety eights in what can only be described as the Chamber of horrors. Hundreds of similar detainees occupied cramped and unhygienic cells. Shackled by manacles, the ‘prisoners’ were repeatedly whacked on their posteriors with clubs 1.5 metres long. The lights in the cells were never turned off and before every meal, the inmates were required to sing full throated patriotic songs in Chinese. “Thank You Uncle Xi (xiexie Xi dada)” was a common refrain.”

“In The Camps” by Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher in the ChinaMade project at the University of Colorado Boulder, and an authority on research focusing on Uighur dispossession, infrastructural power and “terror capitalism” in the Xinjiang province of Central Asia, is a harrowing collection of the repression and unimaginable torment experienced by the minority Uighurs as a result of their internment by the People’s Republic of China. Under the garb of “reeducation” and trumpeting a purging of “religious extremism” and “fundamentalism”, Xi Jinping’s China has established a sophisticated surveillance driven military-industry network in whose murky complexes more than 1.8 million helpless and hapless Uighurs, Kazhaks and Huis are imprisoned and brainwashed.

As Byler writes, post the 9-11 cataclysm, China embarked on a project titled ‘Golden Shield.’ Active state participation and encouragement combined with the aspirations of face and voice recognition technology companies, led to the creation of an extraordinarily complicated and convoluted structure of surveillance that discriminated people on the basis of their religious affinities. Xinjiang that became an epicentre of discrimination where the Uighurs inhabiting Urumchi and other provinces had their passports snatched before being subject to a round the clock intrusive surveillance. The camps themselves are euphemisms for monstrosity. Walls are plastered with slogans exhorting the camp inmates to abhor religious extremism. The detainees trudge into classrooms while they are still handcuffed and spend the entire day learning the hagiography of the Party and the Premier Xi Jinping. The ‘dehumanization’ processes are beyond the vilest of Orwellian imaginations even. Uighur women of childbearing age not submitting to either mandatory sterilization or Intra Uterine Device implantations are deemed “untrustworthy” and banished to these camps.

Within the cell, people young and old are required to sit absolutely ramrod straight for hours without moving a muscle. If they dare to move, which inevitably and eventually they indeed do, they are subject to severe beatings. As Baimurat, a former ‘camp enforcement’ personnel now taking refuge in North America recalls in an interview given to Byler, “They sat between these beds on plastic stools, reciting the rules. You had to recite, whether you knew Chinese or not. And because the people had to sit there for such long hours, there were many people whose intestines ‘fell down’.” Byler paraphrases a moving quote by the Auschwitz concentration camp survivor and best selling author Primo Levi, “some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat is when we are under a load almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart drivers do with willing horses.”

The Chinese also follow a dastardly practice of ‘family segregation’. Children are separated from their parents and are admitted to camps ridiculously named “Kindness Kindergartens.” As Byler writes close to 70 *percent of kids aged around five are held in these Kindergartens. Their mothers are detained at times only because of the fact that they wear a veil and upon taken to the camps, get their heads shaved.

Co-opting and co-operating with the Chinese Governments are the who’s who of the global technology conglomerates. The Intercept laid its hands on a 52 gigabyte dataset representing internal police documents from Xinjiang. Constructed using a software peddled by Oracle, Ken Glueck, the Executive Vice-President of Oracle, exclaimed that almost every major technology behemoth in the United States found themselves a firm part of the Chinese surveillance machinery. The list included IBM, Amazon and Google. The entire surveillance mechanism is a well-oiled machine lubricated by the sustained contributions of high end technology companies that are beholden to both the diktats and largesse of the Communist Party. Face recognition software and voice recognition software comprise the touchstone behind the success, or failure of any expansive and intrusive surveillance system. Beijing had both the components covered in the form of two high flying companies. Hikvision, a camera manufacturing giant in every sense, took care of the facial recognition software. Hikvision in fact is the world’s biggest manufacturer of surveillance cameras and the entity liberally exports its surveillance devices to likeminded regimes. iFlyTek, supplied twenty five voiceprint systems in the province of Kashgar to capture the unique signatures of a person’s voice in order to help identify and track people.

Another high flying technology company with their hands deep in the surveillance technology pie is Megvii. Pioneers of the ‘Face++’ algorithm. Using incredulously complex deep learning systems, Face ++ represented the intrusive and oppressive tool that found itself embedded in every smart phone held by a Uighur, Kazhak and Hui. However in October 2019, just when Megvii was preparing itself for a listing, the United States blacklisted Megvii along with Yitu, Sensetime, Hikvision and Dahua. The Public Relations machinery at Megvii worked overtime in a damage mitigation exercise. Hiring a public relations firm named Brunswick Group, the company tried to downplay its involvement in the activities at Xinjiang. In fact Byler himself wrote an indicting piece against the company for the Centre for Global Policy. Megvii immediately responded through Brunswick Director Matt Miller and a Hong Kong based partner at Brunswick, Ginny Wilderming. Megvii contended that they made meagre revenues of less than US$2 million in Xinjiang (a sum that represented < 1% of the total entity’s turnover). The company also denied any ethnic group centred ‘solutions.’

Byler has the last word in his poignant and conscience inducing book. He brings to the attention of his readers, historian Jason Moore’s immortal turn-of-phrase: “behind Manchester stands Mississippi.” As Nancy Fraser, the Henry and Louise A Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research explains, this turn of phrase means that “the highly profitable textile industry of Manchester that Engels wrote about would not have been profitable without the cheap cotton supplied through enslaved labour from the Americas. I’m tempted to add a third M for Mumbai by the way, to signal the important role played in Manchester’s rise by the calculated destruction by the British of Indian textile manufacturing. Here is a case where expropriation is a condition for the possibility of profitable exploitation. Capitalism plays a double game with people, assigning some to “mere” exploitation while condemning others to brutal expropriation, a distinction that has been associated historically with empire and race.”

In a similar vein, behind Seattle lies the Xinjiang and its ostracized, oppressed and subjugated populace.

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